Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Starting Out in the Evening, by Brian Morton

I discovered this book through A.O. Scott's review of the movie in The New York Times, in which he describes the novel as near perfect. It is about an aging novelist, Leonard Schiller; his books, though once well-regarded, are now out of print and almost entirely forgotten. He still maintains his routine, continues to work on a last novel that has occupied him for over a decade, and spends most of the day in his tiny apartment reading and writing except for occasional outings with old friends - many of whom are sick and dying - and visits from his now middle-aged daughter.

There was one line from Scott's review that stuck with me for days. He compares the novelist to the main character in The Leopard (Visconti's film, not the novel) - and writes that "both movies concern an old man who has outlived the social order in which his life made sense." Schiller's social order is much smaller than Lampedusa's - as far as I can tell, it is the literary culture that existed for a few decades among a select group of intellectuals in Manhattan. They were a group of very serious men (there were probably a few women in the mix too) who believed that a perfectly adventurous life could be lived around words and ideas, that to read and write carefully was a valiant act that had real consequences for the world. They were willing to forgo certain types of intensity so they could have the stability that they needed to do their work and hopefully create something useful and beautiful for society. (Henry James comes up a lot in this book, as you might imagine.) I'm not sure they would have described this as a sacrifice - after all, they were all doing exactly what they wanted to do - but I think they did subscribe to a certain ascetic notion of the artist as a person who had to give up certain conventional satisfactions to perform his service to the world.

Were they right? Did their sacrifice result in the beauty that they hoped for, or did they rob their own work of the vitality it might have had by celebrating a vision of the writer's life that was too monkish and withdrawn? The latter position (and one that I came into this book supporting) is represented by Heather, a young Master's student who discovered Schiller's first two novels as an adolescent. She sees them as stories encouraging people to break out of conventional bonds and embrace freedom and passionate experience. She is an admirer of D.H. Lawrence (so am I) and loves Schiller's books for celebrating the same intensity that she sees in Lawrence. Heather wants to write her thesis about Schiller and then hopefully complete a book that will revive his reputation.

Unsurprisingly, she is shocked to find this fat, quiet old man living in his tiny apartment - he is not much of a representative for the sort of passion that she found in his books. She also is less than impressed with Schiller's last two novels and can't help but think that the rut that Schiller has fallen into - this quiet plodding away at reading and writing - is an escape from life that has drained his novels of their energy. Part of the reason this might have happened is that Schiller lost the wife to whom he was passionately devoted after those first two books. (The description of their early married life and desire for each other are some of the most beautiful sections in the book.) It is an open question whether Schiller is still writing with his entire spirit, or whether his routine is less devotion than weakness at this point - just something to keep him sane and going from day to day.

As Heather conducts her interviews and does her research, a strange romance develops between the two of them. It is less a physical relationship and more of a conversation between visions of life. Schiller's middle-aged daughter, Ariel, is another partner in this conversation. She was once a dancer and is now, not too unhappily, an aerobics instructor. Morton does a lovely job describing the physical immediacy with which she experiences the world, and sets it next to the other characters, who are all trying to get a fix on the world through words.

I hope I haven't made the book seem too schematic, with each character standing in for a certain idea, because they are also large enough to contain multiple positions. All of them can see the value in how other people approach the world for their own life. Here is one of my favorite passages in the novel, with Schiller thinking about his life in light of Heather's (he is sick and has almost collapsed walking up some museum steps): "He didn't want to make a scene. The thought crossed his mind that if greatness had eluded him as a writer, perhaps this was why: because he'd never wanted to make a scene. Subtlety and indirection are important tools, but you can't scale the highest peaks with these tools alone."

The last major character - and for me the most unsatisfactory - is Casey, Ariel's old boyfriend who re-enters her life. She is nearing 40 and wants a child (yes, that old plot) and he does not. Casey is black and Morton pulls out the usual bits of sociological research on what it is like to be a black man: people cross the street to avoid you, police stop you for no particular reason. Etc. There is nothing that is less than well-written but I felt a real drop in the novel's creative energy whenever Casey stepped into the book. Plus him and Ariel have various conversations that just rehash the novel's other themes; they go see 35-Up and talk about how it seems like the middle-aged people in that documentary have given up on their dreams, lost their energy and zest as they get older. Again, etc.

More interesting, I think, are the minor characters who are part of the modern New York literary scene that Heather steps into. They are all leading much more externally interesting lives than Schiller, traveling and going to concerts and parties; they are interested in art and writing but only as long as it's fun for them. They write for magazines and papers with no illusions that the work will last. The writing is meant to serve to create an interesting lifestyle - to meet interesting people and go to new places - and no one thinks it makes any sense to sacrifice any part of the life for the art. And Heather, while basically agreeing with them, can't help seeing a little more nobility in Schiller's life than in theirs.

But what does this nobility really add up to? Schiller's books are not much more likely to last than all of those articles. But who has had a better life, who is worthier of serving as a model? Obviously these questions are not answerable (and are therefore fine material for a novel). I'm not sure this book is near-perfect - I felt my interest dropping off a little near the end - but it is deeply enjoyable (and surprisingly funny, by the way) and asks certain questions in just the right way. Anyone who thinks these questions are important - I'm sure there are a few such people left! - should definitely pick it up.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Nothing Like the Sun, by Anthony Burgess

On the back of this book is some of the most hilariously faint praise I've ever read: "Of all the books about Shakespeare that 1964 will bring forth, none is likely to make livelier reading than Anthony Burgess's historical novel, Nothing Like the Sun." Well said, Country Life magazine - I might even go farther and assert that of all the books about Shakespeare that I have read this year, this is the best. I included it on a list of my favorite historical novels, if anyone is curious.

I should begin by saying that I know very little about Shakespeare or Elizabethan England, so Burgess could have gotten away with almost anything - but, to the extent that one can sense historical rightness, this book felt right. It begins with WS (as he is called throughout) in his adolescence, delivering gloves for his father as his family deals with declining fortunes. He is seduced by a much older woman, gets her pregnant, and is forced to marry.

All of this is beautifully told in a mixture of Elizabethan and modern English. The dialogue in particular is wonderfully handled. None of the people quite came alive for me as complete people - Anne Hathaway and WS's family were vivid but generally creatures of a single characteristic - but Burgess's recreation of the physical and linguistic life of the era was a real delight. The bulk of the book occurs in London after WS has left. He writes his first so-so plays (Titus, The Comedy of Errors) and meets Henry Wriothesley, a spoiled but charming aristocrat, who becomes his patron and occasional lover.

The plot from this point on largely concerns the triangle sketched out in the Sonnets: the pure love with the young man (which WS realizes is not so pure at all) and the degraded lust he feels for the Dark Lady. The Dark Lady is probably the book's biggest problem - she doesn't feel at all real, although there are some beautiful pieces of writing about the texture and look of her skin. Aside from lust and a desire to sleep her way into the aristocracy, she has no real personality. Burgess imagines her as a transplant from the East Indies, a Muslim with a Christian name - Lucy/Fatimah - but aside from giving her a speech pattern (she has a hard time pronouncing certain letter combinations) he makes little effort at deeper characterization.

But the center of this novel is not really a particular person - not even Shakespeare's consciousness felt very alive for me, although what artist would be capable of capturing it? - but the chaotic vibrant world that could give birth to his art. Here is a passage describing WS leaving London as the plague descends:
He left behind a manner of a necropolis. The city baked in its corruption; flies crawled over the sleeping lips of a child; the rats twitched their whiskers at an old dead woman (shrunk to five stone) that lay among lice in a heap of rancid rags; the bells tolled all day for the plague-stricken; cold ale tasted as warm as a posset; the flesher shooed flies off with both hands before chopping his stinking beef; heaps of shit festered and heaved in the heat; tattered villains broke into houses where man, woman, child lay panting and calling feebly for water and, mocking their distress, stole what they had a mind to; the city grew a head, glowing over limbs of towers and houses in the rat-scurrying night, and its face was drawn, its eyes sunken, it vomited foul living matter down to ooze over the cobbles, in its delirium it cried Jesus Jesus.

Riots of apprentices, publics executions, the heads on spikes lining the bridges -- all are just as vividly rendered. I think the book is at its best when it takes detours away from the love triangle; its weakest section is actually in first person and deals with the beginning of the romance with the Dark Lady. I admire the audacity of trying to write as Shakespeare, but it leads to passages that are basically just pedestrian retreads of the material in the sonnets: "For love is one word but many things; love is a unity only in the word. With her I can find the beast's heaven which is the angel's hell; with him, the body's hunger now able to be set aside, there is that most desirable of sorts of love, that which Plato did hymn."

Something about 1st person also restricts Burgess's imagination, I think; he starts making scholarly points and ticking off developments like any dreary biopic: "So I started a play on Troilus and Cressida in disgust that man should be born in baseness and nastiness and my sickness found me a new language for its expression - jerking harsh words, a delirium of coinages and grotesque fusions." Um, indeed WS. (I had a brief flashback to Ray: "Ray, what you've created here is a completely innovative fusion of gospel and blues!") But there is, thankfully, very little of this.

The book ends rather suddenly - an almost mystical passage heralding the flowering of the genius that allowed Shakespeare to write his greatest plays - and then a last scene on his deathbed. I'm not sure it entirely works, but Burgess writes so well that he can pull off almost anything he wants. This book doesn't quite hold together, but just entering its world and reading its sentences was enough to me. A wonderful companion, especially for someone reading the plays.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Stoner, by John Williams

A great deal has been written about this book recently. Steve Almond wrote an admiring review in Tin House, and Morris Dickstein wrote an appreciation recently in The New York Times. There was a huge list of holds at the library and it took months for me to get a copy. I wish I had just bought it, because I definitely want to own it now. It is a wonderful book.

The plot is easy enough to summarize. We first meet William Stoner at 19, on a farm in Missouri with his parents. He goes to agricultural college and discovers, accidentally, a passion for literature. He continues studying and becomes a professor, makes a marriage that proves to be a painful failure, has a child, writes a little-noticed book while continuing to be a devoted teacher, has a few conflicts in the English department and one beautiful experience that I will not give away - and then ages and dies. Most people would describe the book as grim; and its prose style and atmosphere it reminded me somewhat of Revolutionary Road, the Richard Yates novel.

Revolutionary Road, however, is a book that I am almost scared to re-read, because its vision leaves no room for joy of any kind. There is also a horrific inevitability to everything that happens in that book; one never for an instant thinks that these people might break out of their destructive patterns, because the author's mark of death is on them from the moment they appear. Whenever a character in that novel insisted that it was time for a change, I felt like the author was playing with me, because it was clear that happiness was not a possibility in the author's vision of the world.

Stoner has very little of this feeling of inevitability, and it has immense power partially because we realize that this is a world where joy is entirely possible. If most hopes fail, finally, to materialize, it is not because the author feels that this is simply the truth of life; they are dashed simply because certain human beings happen to act in certain ways. I approached the end of Revolutionary Road only with a sort of dull horror, but I finished Stoner with a real sense of tragedy.

The very few parts of the novel I felt were flawed were places where I felt a grim destiny was being forced on characters unnecessarily - Stoner's daughter, for example. It is also immensely difficult to sustain a sense of character while narrating an entire life. Most people, I think, feel like their younger selves were almost different people; when you stretch a life out to several decades, it can't help feel like there are multiple people involved. And the old Stoner does end up feeling like a different person in his old age. The secondary characters in the book actually hold up better, because they are basically nuanced grotesques who can strike only a few poses.

As for the prose, it is immensely refreshing to find an author who has too much respect for the reader and his story to attempt to wrestle anyone for their attention. The book's style, like its subject, is quiet and plain. It celebrates a deep internal vitality - the quiet joys of scholarship and study - that makes no show of itself. The only moments of semi-extravagance come in dialogue. There is also another quality that Stoner shares with many of my favorite works of art: as I finished the book, I had very little sense of what the author might be like. The world the writer created had entirely overwhelmed whatever his personality and attitudes might have been. There are some hints here and there, as there always are, but there was no person rattling a cage behind every sentence - or any sentence, for that matter. I think it takes immense humility to achieve this.

I took a break after reading Stoner - I wanted to think about it for a little while - and didn't pick up any other books for a few days. I had Washington Square lying around, so I started reading it on the subway. And there was old Henry James, smirking out of every paragraph and patting himself on the back for every cleverly turned phrase. I felt an immense sense of revulsion (the book was actually slammed shut) and gave it up after five pages. James's gifts as a writer are so immense - in terms of the actual construction and pacing of a story I can't think of anyone better - but the little I read felt so phony, so far from real human life, that I couldn't keep going. And it struck me that not possessing a great deal of ingenuity can be a real blessing for a writer - "set down with as much modesty as cunning," Hamlet tells the players. (I might even have changed it to "more modesty than cunning.") Williams only wrote three novels in his life but I will definitely seek them all out; I can't imagine any of them being less than extremely good after this book.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Last Evenings on Earth, by Roberto Bolaño

When I picked up my first Bolaño books, I admit I was drawn as much to the story of his life as anything that seemed to be in his books. The legend of Bolaño -- being arrested by Pinochet, the years of penniless wandering, publishing now prominent works for peanuts with minor provincial houses -- usually took up a fair quantity of his first reviews, and why not? A romantic life is worthy of attention nowadays -- few writers seem to have them.

I first picked up By Night in Chile, which had been designated his masterpiece by various bigwigs (Susan Sontag, James Wood), and was a little disappointed. It was very readable, but I felt like it existed to make rather obvious points about political complicity -- it featured a Chilean priest on his deathbed describing various encounters with the Pinochet regime -- and also, despite its streaming prose style (there were no paragraph breaks) it didn't feel fluidly constructed; I got the impression of several short stories squeezed together.

There was one short story, however, set in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire (it is narrated to the priest) that felt like a great one. And one of the things that impresses me most about Bolaño is his extraordinary flexibility, his apparent comfort in different eras, different countries -- a quality he shares with Borges, who he greatly admired (ahem, according to my research on Wikipedia). Last Evenings on Earth features stories about Americans in the Midwest, poets in occupied France, Portuguese, Spaniards, and all variety of South Americans. And each one is told in the same completely unaffected style; there is not a sentence in the book that seems to have been labored over to create the impression of beauty. Like Tolstoy, directness of communication seems to be the only goal, and every line feels like it could be naturally spoken. It is unsurprising that his big novels are all sequences of monologues.

Despite the variety of settings, there is also a certain sameness to the stories in the book. Most of them feature a man, almost always a writer, living a fairly solitary existence in one city or another; often some person crosses his path, something happens between them -- a small incident, usually, like an insult at a party -- and then after a few more encounters the person leaves the main character's life. Perhaps years later something is heard of him. There are no revelations of any variety, or even any indication that this is necessarily a significant encounter for anyone involved.

Each story is told in a flat summary narration that isn't, however, "deadpan" -- it is both completely natural and deeply strange, strange because it is used to describe lives that have no narrative arc, where one thing follows another with nothing in particular learned, no goal in mind. To me this voice felt like new in literature; the coldness came not from any lack of humanity in either the characters or the writer, but a hard look at the shape of most lives and an unwillingness to accept the sense of artificiality that comes with the epiphanies at the end of so much modern fiction. The one story that seems to contain a life-changing encounter, probably the most traditional in the book -- Mauricio ("The Eye") Silva -- also seemed the most stilted and unnatural to me.

There is one story in the book that I think is a masterpiece, and that is "Anne Moore's Life." It simply narrates the life of a young woman, moving from partner to partner, city to city, with some good experiences and many bad ones, with almost no narrative shape, no attempt to make any one event stand out more than another. It is almost an anti-narrative, with every event flattened out so you can somehow see an entire life in front of you in what appears to be its utter terrifying pointlessness.

I read the story with growing dread, a feeling of being lost in some awful place, but even as I knew that this was not the sort of feeling I read for, that the sense of aimlessness that pervades so much modern life requires no further duplication in books, I couldn't help feeling that the story was an honest one. It was telling the truth about so much many lives -- maybe all lives, at some point or another -- and its effects were not achieved by accident or through sloppiness. Only a real artist, I think, could have brushed away so many thousand years of narrative convention to produce something like this, a narrative whose significance exists in its being completely drained of significance. Well, that's not exactly true; the significance is just displaced -- instead of being found in particular moments, it is spread out to the patterns, obvious and mysterious, that rise out of an entire life.

I think I've made Bolaño seem like a drearier writer than he is, because the ease of his style also makes for incredibly addictive reading, and he can also be tremendously funny, although it is often hard to figure out where the humor is coming from. There is a passage from the Anne Moore story that seems to get at it:
A fair few of Girona's junkies used to gather outside that bar, and the local toughs were often to be seen cruising around, but Anne would reminisce about the toughs of San Francisco, who were seriously tough, and I would reminisce about the toughs of Mexico City, and we'd laugh and laugh, although now, to be honest, I can't remember what what so funny, perhaps just the fact that we were alive.
I will pick up The Savage Detectives soon and read it, and his final novel (2066) is apparently coming out next year in English. So far, it has been hard to love Bolaño books, but there is also something immensely compelling and somehow liberating about them.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Ron Carlson

Another one of my reviews was just posted on Bookslut. It isn't a particularly enthusiastic review, and I hope I was fair. I had a feeling that I wouldn't like the the book even when I requested it, but I do like Ron Carlson's stories and wanted to see if something interesting could be done in the "craft of writing" genre. It was also something of a nostalgic excursion, because I used to gobble up such books in college and hadn't opened one since.

Anyway, I'd love to hear what people think. It's strange: whenever I go back and read these Bookslut reviews after some time has passed, I get the feeling that some stodgy old man has written them. They usually only say things that I agree with, but the liveliness is sort of gone. And it's usually there when I re-read old parts of this blog. Well, you do the best you can.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

A few weeks ago, I googled Anatole Broyard. I remember reading that he was the basis for Coleman Silk in The Human Stain -- a book I liked a lot -- and was curious about his life. I happened to come across a lengthy piece about him by Henry Louis Gates. I was enthralled, and a few days later I checked Gates's book of essays out of the library.

The collection consists of eight biographical sketches of different black men, written mainly for The New Yorker: James Baldwin, Albert Murray, Bill Jones (a dancer and choreographer), Colin Powell, Louis Farrakhan, Harry Belafonte, and Broyard. There is also a piece on the O.J. Simpson trial. Why the "thirteen" in the title? I certainly didn't spot thirteen different ways of looking enumerated in the book, so I suppose Gates just wanted to allude to the Wallace Stevens poem.

Well, mission accomplished, I suppose. Your allusion has been spotted, Mr. Gates. It is a very professorial title, and Gates is a much worse writer when that side of him comes out. After reading the Broyard piece, which addressed a massively complicated subject with such wonderful clarity and immediacy, it was rather disappointing to flip to the introduction and come across a passage like this (I am choosing at random):
I distrust the rhetoric of crisis. It's at once too gloomy and too hopeful: the Hippocratic trope of "crisis" invokes a turning point, beyond which lies recovery or death, and neither one seems in the cards for us. I have my doubts, too, about the way the ostensible subject of the crisis, the black male, has been conceptualized. It's a conversation that still bears traces (though fading ones) of a rivalry over victim status: the sort of Oppression Sweepstakes that ran through so much harebrained attitudinizing of the seventies and eighties.
This is not bad writing, exactly, it is just completely dead. It is Professor Writing. I recognize it from a thousand mediocre lectures and pieces of mandatory reading. Gates is capable of much better, but he needs a subject to keep him from being blandly smart and nothing more. He can even be a fine communicator of ideas as long as he has some reality to tie them to. Compare this passage from the essay on Harry Belafonte to the one above:
Politics, it sometimes seems, is what Belafonte did instead of the more wholesome, more normal preoccupations of the American superstar--namely, drugs, debauchery, and dissipation. On some level, surely, we want our idols to engage in the sins of the flesh--on our behalf, as it were--and, being obliging souls, they usually do. By contrast, the celebrity who makes heavy weather of his political convictions strikes us (when they are not our convictions) as recklessly indulgent: what's violated is the intricate, unwritten covenant between celebrities and their fans. We elevate them to godlike status, but heaven forbid they should think they're better than us.
The professor is still very much in evidence here, but this is real writing. Gates duplicates some of the virtues and flaws of Edmund Wilson, one of my favorite writers of biographical sketches: the stately prose, the ability to disappear at some points into the material, and also the tendency to go off the rails when left alone with ideas (see for example Wilson's terrible introduction to Patriotic Gore, his great book on the Civil War).

Gates, luckily, also has the mark of a great journalist: he knows when to let people keep talking -- in person and on the page. Many of the best pieces -- the Colin Powell one, for example -- lay out a few facts and then just feature one quote after another about what various people think of the subject. And Gates does seem to have had access to an incredible range of people. He also has the knack for getting people to shed their public persona and speak with unusual candor (or, in Powell's case, get up and dance -- Gates somehow managed to get him to do the Camel Walk). Here is a passage that jumped out at me from the Harry Belafonte piece:
Sidney Poitier, who is Belafonte's best friend and nearly exact contemporary, says that the childhood years they spent in the West Indies gave them a psychological advantage: colonialism aside, growing up in a black-majority country meant that most of the doctors, nurses, lawyers, and policemen you encountered were black. "I firmly believe," Poitier said, "that we both had the opportunity to arrive at the formation of a sense of ourselves without have it fucked with by racism as it existed in the United States."
Sidney Poitier curses! Who knew? Anyway, I could quote and quote. Thirteen Ways is not flawless, but it is has given me more to think about than most other books I have read recently. And also more to discover: I have a whole list of titles that Gates has made me want to read (Baldwin's essays in particular). I was going to write some commonplace about how this book transcends issues of race, but this seemed like a weirdly belittling compliment; race is still a massive enough issue in American life to be quite worthy of everyone's attention with no transcending required. I recommend at least taking a look at the Broyard, Belafonte, and Powell pieces -- they are very worth your time.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Louis CK

I was thinking recently that it was unlikely that any work of art from the past couple of decades was going to rival the best seasons of the Simpsons. What books (in English at least) are definitely going to survive from the same time period? And I remembered something that Borges wrote about artists working in media that are not given literary respect. He was writing specifically about Shakespeare and why none of his contemporaries seem to have taken any notice of the magnitude of what he was producing: "Every era believes that there is a literary genre that has a kind of primacy. Today, for example, any writer who has not written a novel is asked when he is going to write one." And in Shakespeare's day the prestige genre was the epic poem - drama was throwaway popular entertainment.

And he goes on to mention that so much of the best art is produced, to some extent, under the artistic radar of its times. In his own era, he mentions how people were finally coming to see film as an art, but utterly ignoring the screenwriter. "Ben Hecht had to a die a few days ago," he writes, "in order for me to remember that he was the author of the screenplays of these films that I have so often watched and praised." The same is still true of all the people who wrote those Simpsons episodes: it is now common enough to praise that show to the skies, but how many people know who those writers are, search out more of their work, or rank them with the great artists of our time?

After reading this Borges essay (it is "The Enigma of Shakespeare," if anyone is interested, from the Selected Non-Fictions collection - a book that is absolutely wonderful) I started to think about what other works of art might now be hiding in popular but low prestige areas. Television writers, certainly, still get very little credit. Comic books and graphic novels as well, although I have been less impressed with some of the apparent classics of those genres (the only one that struck me as having the same merit as a great novel is Ghost World, although I admit I've only read about a dozen graphic novels).

There is another genre that reminded of what Borges said about drama in Shakespeare's time -- that it was considered primarily a performer's showcase instead of a literary art -- and that is stand-up comedy. People praise certain comics, but I don't think it has ever been really appreciated as literary art form, despite the fact that good comics seem just as hardworking and concerned with craft as the most diligent writer of fiction or poetry. I recently read a wonderful interview in the AV Club with Louis CK, and I started looking up some of his material on YouTube. And it's seriously brilliant. I do like the absurdist one-liner comics, but the ones that really stick with me are the storytellers - Cosby and Pryor and CK - that make you forget the obvious artifice behind a guy standing up and telling jokes. Anyway, here are some of my favorite clips, but there are plenty more - uneven of course but the good parts are really inspired.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Lost Steps, by Alejo Carpentier

I discovered this book on the office charity table and picked it up for a dollar. I had only heard of Carpentier because of Harold Bloom, who mentions him a few times in The Western Canon. Here is Bloom in his usual mode of bald assertion: "I center on Borges and Neruda, though time may demonstrate the supremacy of Carpentier over all other Latin American writers in this era."

Indeed, time may, H.B. I'm embarrassed to admit that I once believed Bloom's notion that, with adequate sensitivity, one could establish clear hierarchies of literary value -- and that the writers that were objectively the "best" would obviously be the most valuable for me (because naturally I would have that rare sensitivity). The older I get the more I notice that the works I value are largely a matter of personal affinity with the authors -- whether their preoccupations and methods line up with mine, either in obvious or more mysterious ways.

Dostoevsky, for example, despite his obvious creative eminence, has never spoken to me. The issues that he struggles with aren't central for me, and he seems to dedicate most of his energy to creating characters that (again, for me) are grotesque caricatures, grotesque because they are working off all sorts of assumptions that strike me as obviously false. I have the same feeling when I read Graham Greene. Maybe people writing prose out of an essentially Christian imagination have a mindset that I just cannot connect with.

All of this is a long preamble to say that I feel a deep connection with Carpentier's preoccupations, and that I value this book more that others probably will because of this connection. What are these preoccupations? They are not original, and I suspect they will produce some rolling of eyes. My basic feeling is that our current pattern of development in the West is a disaster, that it is creating a living environment of astonishing ugliness and sterility, and that this model is being presenting to the rest of the world as the only reasonable goal for progress; and that modern industrial civilization needs to rediscover some of the virtues of pre-industrial societies if it is to become a good place for people again. The imaginative writers that seem to me to be facing these issues -- Lawrence and Hardy and Orwell in his Essays -- are close to me for this reason.

And now Carpentier as well, at least in this book. The story is about a composer living in an unnamed place that is clearly New York, and writing scores for movies and advertisements. Even when he knows that he has succeeded in terms of craft, he realizes that he is destroying, or at least wasting, his talent. I know, these are cliches, but they are handled beautifully. Here is the narrator describing his mistress and a group of their artist friends, and their interest in mysticism.
...[he] had managed to impose on us a series of practices derived from the Yoga asamas, making us breathe in a certain way, measuring the length of inhalations and exhalations by "matras." Mouche and her friends hoped thereby to arrive at greater control over themselves and at the acquisition of powers about which I had my doubts, especially in people who drank every day as a defense against despair, fear of failure, self-contempt, the shock of a rejected manuscript, or simply the harshness of that city of perennial anonymity amid the crowd, that place of relentless haste where eyes met only by accident and the smile on the lips of a stranger was a build-up for some kind of a proposition.
This feeling of urban anomie is pretty usual in literature, but doesn't something blossom at the end of that sentence? Such magical transformations of common material appear again and again in this book, purely because of the quality of Carpentier's prose, his ability to hit on precisely the right phrase.

The narrator gets an assignment to go to an unnamed country in South America to collect some traditional musical instruments. He takes his mistress, Mouche, along. There are complications, and as he moves farther into the jungle he feels himself shedding centuries of human history and technical progress. Mouche is ill at ease but the narrator finds himself identifying more and more with the types of societies surrounding him. Here is another quote, as he argues with Mouche about progress:
Just to be contrary, I said that the thing that impressed me most on this trip was the discovery that there were still great areas of the earth where people were immune to the ills of the day, and that here, even though many people were contented with a thatched roof, a water jug, a clay griddle, a hammock, and a guitar, a certain animism lived on in them, an awareness of ancient traditions, a living memory of certain myths which indicated the presence of a culture more estimable and valid, perhaps, than that which we had left behind. It was of greater value for a people preserve the memory of the Chanson de Roland than to have hot and cold running water. I was glad to know that there were still men unwilling to trade their souls for a gadget which by eliminating the washwoman did away with her song, thus wiping out ages of folklore at one fell swoop.
I know, I know, the washwoman may be quite happy about not pounding those clothes on a rock anymore, but something true remains after the obvious objections. And Carpentier is intelligent and honest enough to realize that a return to such a society has an immense cost. The novel is not a stupidly romantic fantasy. Its flaws actually lie elsewhere. Carpentier has a good sense of how to construct and pace a novel, but he has little narrative talent. There is not a convincing character in the book other than the narrator, and no truly lifelike scenes between people, although there are beautiful passages of description. When the narrator claims, at one point, that he is deeply in love with a certain woman, I actually laughed out loud because it was so entirely unconvincing.

Such a lack of credibility would seem like a fatal flaw for a novel, but for whatever reason it is not -- for me, at least. I will take a look at his other novels soon as well. But I know that The Lost Steps is already in my small stack of books to reread.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Weird Death of the Literary Allusion

In a very good essay called The Obscurity of the Poet, Randall Jarrell bemoaned the fact that America no longer had any shared literary reference points. Flipping through old poetry, he is amazed at how many allusions -- to mythology, history, the Bible -- our ancestors "were expected to recognize--and did recognize."

Well, we can question who exactly he meant by "our ancestors," but it is clear enough what he's trying to say, and also that the situation is only getting worse. Today, even in a room with people sporting all sorts of degrees, there is barely any literary allusion one can make in full confidence of being understood. Off the top of my head, I can think of a handful of Shakespearean characters, a few people in the Bible, Don Quixote, and maybe Robinson Crusoe; and, as far as actual language goes, a few American political documents and speeches. One can make no end of references to songs and celebrities and SNL sketches, but they have a shelf life of about a month. Some iconic movies are probably all that remain of a universal and lasting cultural tradition.

I have especially noticed this lack of shared American reference points because Indians (at least Hindus) very much still have a common culture. There are hundreds of stories that I would say pretty much every Indian, regardless of level of education or piety, knows by heart, because these stories are continually retold in every Indian art form from the television serial to classical dance. And they crop up continually in conversation to illustrate points. My father quite casually compared himself to Abhimanyu while negotiating a tricky merge on the highway.

What is the point of allusions? They rarely save much space on the page. My father could have said that he felt hemmed-in and made largely the same point. But there is a range of associations that comes with these old stories; they give your speech an emotional charge that a simple description wouldn't have -- I immediately pictured the swirl of threatening soldiers from the story, for example -- and they also connect you, even if ironically, to the history of the human race; you realize that you are acting out dramas that have appeared again and again over hundreds of years, that you a part of a tradition instead of an entirely free agent.

But then again, maybe you're just being pretentious. There's always that possibility. And this is the usual response one gets if one drops one of these nuggets. Stop showing off. I remember being floored when Sidney Blumenthal, during the Monica Lewinsky hearings, mentioned that Clinton had compared himself to Rubashov. Can you imagine him ever making such a reference in a public speech, despite the fact that he is obviously a man of rather astonishing erudition? How many votes would it have cost him?

Literary allusions are still occasionally sighted, but they have undergone a strange transformation that, I predict, is a sign of their imminent demise. I read two articles recently that demonstrated their new form. Here is a quote from the first one, from Salon:
Simply to acquire a working familiarity with the theories that have been advanced to explain the fall of the Roman empire -- Murphy notes that a German historian has listed 210 of them -- is a massive undertaking; to advance an original thesis is the work of decades; to compare Rome to America could occupy a Casaubon -- the pedant who searches in vain for a "Key to All Mythologies" in George Eliot's "Middlemarch" -- for several lifetimes.
And here is one from a New York Times review:
At times, he is rather reminiscent of Dickens’s Mrs. Jellyby in “Bleak House,” “a lady of very remarkable strength of character, who ... has devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects, at various times, and is at present (until something else attracts her) devoted to the subject of Africa; with a view to the general cultivation of the coffee berry — and the natives.”
One sees this again and again. Every time an allusion pops up in an American newspaper, it is followed immediately by an explanation for those not in the know, so as to avoid seeming pretentious. The interesting thing is that these explanations, in addition to being distracting, render the allusions entirely unnecessary. Instead of your mind opening up into the thing alluded to, it is shut into the thumbnail description provided; and people who did not spot the allusion in the first place get little out of the explanation.

After this little dance is completed, in fact, it becomes clear that the allusions are there for absolutely no reason other than to indicate that the author is familiar with them; one becomes entirely pretentious in trying to avoid being a little pretentious. For example, the first sentence could easily say "occupy a pedant for several lifetimes" and actually be more accurate; all Kamiya is trying to say is that that many connections can be made on the subject, not that the project is (like Casaubon's) fundamentally misguided. And in the New York Times review, the long quote, necessary to indicate who Mrs. Jellyby is, actually misrepresents Ferguson's point, which is that Sachs is occasionally unrealistic and messianic; the quote implies, instead, that Sachs is a dilettante ("until something else attracts her"), ready to move on to another cause at the first opportunity.

These attempts to explain take away the ambiguity that the simple references might have had (which would have forced the reader to think about them and make her own, potentially interesting connections) and instead lead both authors to mess up their own arguments. All of this has, at its root, the assumption that there is nothing a modern reader is more disgusted by than a second of incomprehension. Obviously, clarity is a fine thing, but I've always been thankful for the occasional moment of incomprehension, even from a pedant, since it's a useful spur to further education.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure

This movie was playing, for some reason, at the local theater, along with a bunch of old Warner Brothers cartoons. I never watched the show as a kid (Pee-Wee sort of weirded me out) but was assured that Big Adventure was good. For the first five minutes, during Pee-Wee's breakfast ritual, I was a little confused about why in the world I was watching this movie. The theater was, incidentally, almost completely empty.

Things got better soon. As soon as Pee-Wee leaves the house, the movie starts to cast its spell. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is not, like most cult comedies, merely quirky; it is deeply, hypnotically strange. The only disappointing parts are actually those that resemble conventional comedies: a punch line about someone going to jail for cutting off a mattress tag, a lengthy anarchic chase scene.

Most of the humor comes from a place that is foreign to modern movies, comic or otherwise, and it's a place that felt unusually healthy to me, because there is no cruelty in the jokes. Almost none of them are at anyone's expense (there is a small exception at the end). And with its hobos and convicts and rodeo cowboys, the movie, for all of its surface novelty, seemed to be tapping a deep vein of weird American humor, the same one that comes out in folk songs (many of which make no sense at all) and in some of Dylan's nuttiest lyrics. It is a fine place to be, one that is getting increasingly hard to find in the real America.

Should I bother to describe the plot? Someone steals Pee-Wee's bike and he travels around the country trying to get it back. That's about all. Anyway, it's an inspired movie. I'm already looking forward to seeing it again.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Europa, by Tim Parks

I discovered Tim Parks's essays a few years ago. One of them was included as a sample chapter on the New York Times web page, and I remember reading it and thinking it was good. I checked out the entire essay collection from the library (I was pleased to discover another writer who loved Henry Green as much as I did) but wasn't captivated by it.

Over the years, for some reason, I kept going back and having the urge to read that essay again, and it started feeling better than just good. (Click on the link and read it; I have sent it to several friends who all liked it.) I checked out the entire collection recently and more and more of the essays started to come alive; they were vibrant and worthy of repeated reading like very little I had ever come across. I must just have been too young before. I've also read most of his essays in The New York Review of Books and think he might be the best literary critic currently working in English.

I decided to read more of his work and checked out Europa, which had been nominated for a Booker. I immediately noticed that Parks was reworking material from the essays: the entire novel was based off two earlier essays, Adultery and Europa. (As you can see, he certainly isn't hiding the connections.) The voice was also almost exactly the same as the one that Thomas Bernhard uses in his novels -- the same endless sentences, working over the narrator's obsessions with clause after clause. A sample:

"Be yourself, I remember her saying; as she was also capable of saying such things as honesty is the best policy and make love not war, and even, on our return that night from the hospital, despite a heavily bandaged jaw, that there was no point in crying over spilt milk, an expression which exists, remarkably enough, not only in English, but in Italian and French as well, and even, I believe, in Georg's German, and is equally ridiculous in all of these languages, since what would one ever cry over, I demanded of her then, if not spilt milk? I wanted to hit her again for saying that. For the stupidity of saying that. Would you cry over milk if it hadn't been spilt?"

Except maybe for "make love not war" (does anyone say that seriously?) there is not a false note in this passage, and there is a rarely a false note in the book. Huge pages of unbroken prose are handled with beautiful, musical control, just like in Bernhard. Once you start getting a feeling for the rhythm of the clauses, reading them is no problem. And the book is hilarious.

The basic plot is that some foreign lecturers in an Italian university are taking a bus to the European Parliament in Strasbourg to protest their treatment by the Italian government. The professors are mainly male, and a number of them are clearly hoping to sleep with some of the female students who have come along on the trip to show their support. Among the professors is a woman, unnamed for most of the book, who the narrator (Jerry) had an affair with and broke up his marriage for, only to discover that she did not take the relationship quite as seriously as he did.

She is on the bus, a few seats in front of him, and he obsessively goes over their relationship in his mind, while puncturing the pretensions of everything around him before turning (repeatedly) on himself. It is hard to remember another book that is quite so honest about how men think. I could quote and quote but the material usually can't be divorced from its context and also the sentences are damn long.

There are some problems; it is hard to end books that deal with obsessive states of mind, that pile things on top of each other, in any sort of satisfying manner. The development that does occur at the end of the book feels melodramatic, irrelevant almost. And there are some straw men -- a particularly lame example of a PC novel, for example -- that are material for the narrator's rants, and don't seem like worthy opponents.

These are small gripes, though. After reading this book, I went online to see why I hadn't heard more about Parks, and stumbled across David Gates's review in the New York Times. It is sheer idiocy. Gates seemed to be upset that Parks did not judge his narrator (who should be "slapped ...down," apparently, while narrating the book himself); basically, Gates argues, the man should be exposed as being in the wrong for saying all these disturbing things. In other words, make the book reassuring to the audience, so they don't bother trying to take any of the narrator's arguments seriously, and they are in fact deadly serious. It is aggravating to think how many readers Parks might have lost because of this dunce. But then I suppose maybe the reviewer is just doing his job: most people won't actually like this novel.

It is the few, however, that keep a book alive, and I think this one -- along with Parks's essays -- might actually last. They are rarely perfect, but they give off sparks of genuine greatness. I am reading my way through all of his books (there are several novels and books of essays, a volume of history, and two memoirs) and I think that he is something special.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier

A magical book. I started it in French and, unfortunately, had to switch to English because my renews ran out at the library (I was going pretty slow). I wish I had stuck with it in the original language, because I could always feel when the English was inadequate; things that had a certain enchanting vagueness in the French (the word "domaine," for example, comes up again and again) just felt goofy in the English.

But the spell remains, in the end, even in translation. Le Grand Meaulnes is a story of childhood and adolescence, lost worlds, schoolyard fights, love at first sight, and that sort of thing. I don't want to describe the plot, because it would sound ridiculous. And the book is always, in fact, threatening to become silly. But one of the marks of its genius is that it succeeds in creating a mood in the reader where she doesn't have the slightest inclination to protest that the plot is ludicrous. You pass through it like a dream, and it seems to be telling you the truth about a certain period in your life like no other book.

I noticed something while I was reading it: one of the marks of works of adult literature that deal primarily with childhood -- David Copperfield, for example, and My Antonia -- is a narrator who is almost tangential to the plot. In so many of these books, the narrator is continually on the sideline while other people act out their dramas, and never seems unhappy about it. Perhaps this is because children feel this way when looking at adults, or maybe it is just a characteristic of the sort of people that tend to read and write books. I remember being in thrall even to slightly older or bigger children, happy to help them succeed in their own adventures with no thought to my own. Part of what makes these books magical is the fact that they are not happening to the narrator, who is only looking in and experiencing it all second hand; this might also be what gives all of these books an air of impossible nostalgia. It is as if all of these events, the show that other people put on, have already become memories which we can only deal with as spectators, and never change.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Rebel Angels, by Robertson Davies

I read The Deptford Trilogy several years ago, and remember being absolutely enchanted, especially at the end of the first volume, but a little disappointed at the end. The first novel (Fifth Business) ends with a fascinating mystery the solution to which is, perhaps inevitably, far less interesting that the possibilities generated by the unresolved situation. It is also not really convincing.

The real pleasures of the novels, in any case, are elsewhere -- the observations on human nature, the prose style, the beautiful pacing and construction, and to some extent the characterization -- but one can't help feel let down when a trilogy of novels is built around a single question.

The Cornish Trilogy -- or at least the first novel -- provides many of the same pleasures without putting too much weight on a single plot point. It is again ingeniously told, alternating between two narrators: Simon Darcourt, a pastor, and Maria Theotoky, a beautiful half-gypsy graduate student (I know that sounds terrible, but believe me, it's a good book). There is a fair amount of plot involving unhappy loves and stolen manuscripts, but filled with long detours into pre-modern science, violin repair, gypsy love potions, the importance of excrement, and the Greek of the New Testament.

This may seem like one of those awful information-stuffed novels designed to show off the author's intelligence, but Davies's erudition didn't annoy me the way it can in some books, perhaps because this is a book about a university and the discussions of scholarly pursuits are, in a way, a form of characterization. Or maybe just because I found them interesting.

A note on characterization: this novel reminded me of something Orwell said about D. H. Lawrence, that he avoided the "novelist's problem" simply by making all of his characters equally sensitive. The same could be said of The Rebel Angels, but I'm not really sure that it is a genuine problem. A novelist is not obligated to feature characters with varying levels of intelligence. A book full of characters capable of fascinating insights is just a different kind of book. I actually felt a real connection between Davies and Lawrence: even with drastically different narrative styles, both of them wrote novels that are (perhaps primarily) vehicles for a philosophy of life. It is telling that Davies is an admirer of John Cowper Powys, who at least in the one book of his I've read appears to have a similar inclination.

There is one problem with this attitude towards novel-writing; the author seems to be everpresent, regardless of what character we are dealing with. For example, virtually everyone in The Rebels Angels talks in the same way; only the barest attempt is made at differentiation. I frequently had to doublecheck a passage to figure out who was speaking. The things they say are often interchangeable as well, and one can imagine a whole handful of insights in the mouths of any of four major characters. Even our beautiful young gypsy sounds like a crusty old novelist.

But, finally, who cares? I enjoyed this book immensely. I actually looked forward to my daily subway ride because of it. Like the single novels of The Deptford Trilogy, it is clearly designed as part of a whole, and the ending is far from satisfying. I'm taking a break at the moment, but I'm very much looking forward to dipping back into it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Shopgirl, by Steve Martin

I didn't really like this book (or even think it was an interesting failure), so normally I wouldn't bother writing about it, but it presented an interesting comparison with Guinevere, which I wrote about a week ago. Both are about relationships between young, shy, confused girls (early 20s) and much older men in their 50s. Both girls eventually have artistic ambitions, both older men go after younger women compulsively and exclusively. But one was worthwhile and thought-provoking while the other was largely dishonest and, especially towards the end, truly awful. Also (not to imply any connections) one is set in San Francisco and the other in L.A., and one was written and directed by a young woman and the other by an old man, Steve Martin.

I picked up Shopgirl -- the audiobook, as read by the author -- because I like Steve Martin (see for example my review of Pennies from Heaven, which was apparently made entirely because of his support for the project) and because I thought it would be a good book for a long car ride. The book begins with a portrait of Mirabelle, who works at the glove counter of a fashionable department store in L.A. She is fairly solitary despite being attractive, because she is rather shy and suffers from chronic depression. The descriptions of how she experiences her depression, even while on medication -- the feeling of having the emotion moved and immobilized a small distance from her, but still always present somehow -- felt convincing. Martin has a feeling for prose, and sentence for sentence the book is never less than competent.

The book begins well enough. Mirabelle is incompetently courted by a slacker named Jeremy. There is a farcical scene of sex between them after Mirabelle calls him over simply to feel a body next to her at night. Martin pushes the jokes too far occasionally, but I can forgive this impulse.

Soon, unfortunately, Mirabelle's elderly admirer appears at the glove counter, and the book begins its long decline. It is never really funny again, but it does get a great deal nastier and increasingly unconvincing. The man, Ray Porter, courts Mirabelle and they go on a date. He is nice to her and takes her to fancy restaurants, which she appreciates. Something strange starts to happen right around here. The book had started from Mirabelle's perspective, but begins to focus more and more on what Ray Porter is thinking. Mirabelle, in fact, basically vanishes as a thinking person from the middle of the book. I knew that something was going haywire the first time the two of them have sex. No relationship can take place between people of drastically different ages without both of them having some thoughts about what time has done to each of their bodies. Guinevere tackled this obvious issue directly, but the author of Shopgirl decided that he would, instead, provide a rapturous description of Mirabelle's fine ass. She never seems to have any thoughts at all about the fact that Ray is more than twice her age.

Ray Porter in fact sleeps with younger women constantly and never has the slightest trouble with stamina or performance, despite the novel's single (honest) mention of the popping of his aging joints as he sits down on Mirabelle's futon. One gets the feeling that the author, for whatever reason, does not quite want to broach this subject. Instead, all we get are beautiful young women desiring desperately to sleep with Ray Porter, for reasons that are unclear. The novel is an excellent example of sentimental misogyny, where all the women in a novel can be depicted in the most humiliating and insulting fashion as long as a single deep female character exists to be respected. This is not quite the same thing, by the way, as the old virgin-whore mindset, because there is not a woman in this book who is not sexually available.

Here are some of the marks of this attitude. Every lovely woman we encounter who meets or hears of Ray Porter wants him, and their reward is not just rejection but humiliation. A woman trying to fellate Ray Porter cannot simply be turned away; she must be drunk and fall flat on her face as she goes for the belt buckle. The strange thing is that Martin reads these scenes with rather disturbing relish, in much the same way he describes the "twat" of another bimbo character who accidentally sleeps with the wrong man in attempting to get to, who else, Ray Porter. Sentimental misogyny (which, by the way, is far from limited to male authors) also prevents the single "deep" female character from seeming at all authentic. After the beginning of the book, Mirabelle vanishes as a person. When she actually starts getting lines again towards the end of the book, as in her speech on what makes an effective lie at a dinner party, they seem strange and out of nowhere.

The book is rather essayistic in style and contains several assessments of everyone's character and development, but it ignores every implication or plot development that might be less than consoling to the audience or the author. Everyone gets what they want, people change in huge ways for no particular reason, love and maturity are found in a paragraph or two. And as I reached the last tape of this novella, it struck me how a certain kind of sensitivity can be just another manifestation of vanity. Martin's exploration of Mirabelle's character finally seems less like an honest attempt to get to know her than a desire to show himself as an observant, sensitive man. It is like a seduction guide that shows you how to present yourself as deeply interested in someone's life purely as a means of getting your subject undressed.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Guinevere

I got this movie from the library on a whim. I don't think it received much praise when it was released, because its ambitions are small, but it struck me as much more interesting than most movies that people gush about. The story is fairly simple: a young woman just out of college, bright but shy and without any particular direction, meets an older man at a wedding (he is the photographer) and is immediately taken with him. He is charming but in a realistic way rarely seen in the movies; he has no repartee at his fingertips. Most of his charm lies simply in the fact that he pays attention to her. As soon becomes apparent, he can sense with whom this brand of charm will be most effective.

The girl is largely out of step with her family, all of whom are lawyers and equally self-possessed and well-spoken. She is goofy and quiet and awkward. Sarah Polley, the actress who plays her, gives a strange but completely believable performance. You scratch your head occasionally at her choices -- like the hysterical giggles she lets loose the first time the photographer attempts to seduce her -- but as the movie goes on all of the elements seem to make sense together; it is an incredibly lifelike performance.

The movie proceeds in what may seem like a predictable pattern for a May-December romance movie, but unlike movies like Something's Gotta Give, whose point is largely to shame the older man for his immorality, and bring him back into the fold only if he has been well-chastised and is ready for a woman his own age, Guinevere realizes that the man does not exist only to be fixed. As the relationship proceeds, we discover along with the girl that the man is petty and childish, a serial seducer of young women, an alcoholic, and a putative Marxist who spouts rhetoric about class while sponging off other people - but also that something real still remains after his flaws have been revealed.

A more predictable movie would simply have denounced this man as a fraud, which he clearly is to some extent, and left it that. The grand conclusion would have been that the woman sees through him and leaves him behind, wiser for the experience. But to its credit, the movie realizes that the situation is not quite so simple. Like a book that seemed great when you were seventeen, the photographer exists to some extent to be gotten past; he helps bring his lovers up to a level where they can see through him. Even while his act is to some degree insincere (his seduction routine, for example, does not change from woman to woman) the awakening he promises them does take place, and the care he lavishes on them is genuine. To be outgrown, after all, can be an honorable thing; in people, for example, it might even be a form of sacrifice.

There are a few flaws: an unnecessary voiceover, for example, and some false notes in various scenes. The movie ends rather badly too. Unlike everything that has gone before, there is a feeling that this is not the way things would actually go. Too much that was already obvious is spelled out, and there is a dream sequence that seems silly instead of a fitting conclusion. But it does not really ruin anything. Guinevere, like few movies that I have seen recently, is worth talking about with people; it resists summing up.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

To Each His Own, by Leonardo Sciascia

I read an article recently in the Boston Globe about an Afghan warlord who was one of America's allies towards the beginning of the war. He would report the position of various enemy forces and the Americans would go and bomb them. Eventually it became clear that he was just calling in airstrikes against enemy warlords and other rivals, and that any number of people who were not Taliban forces had been killed - including, apparently, guests at a wedding who were connected to someone that this guy happened to dislike.

After Karzai appointed a new governer in the region, the warlord - his name is Pacha Khan Zadran - started attacking government forces, including American soldiers. People that allegedly worked for him were captured and sent to Guantanamo - some, in fact, while he was still considered an American ally. Eventually, he was classified as an enemy and then, when it was decided that his support was necessary to stabilize the country, pardoned and made part of the government. Two of his alleged hirelings are still in Guantanamo - it is unclear what if any role they played in the attacks - and he lives in a mansion with the protection of our government. One of the major charges against the men still being held is that they have connections to him!

What do you do when you read stories like this, along with reports of accidentally gunning down families at roadblocks and people fishing by the river? What's an adequate response to the immensity of these injustices, especially in a war with so little justification? I have been thinking recently that American writers still haven't figured out how to convert the rage and bitterness that many people have felt over the last half dozen years into any sort of art. To Each His Own is the rare book that feels like a true artistic response to such massive institutional crimes. Unsurprisingly, Sciascia comes from Italy, the only Western country with a government that has been more corrupt than America's for the past few years, although mercifully with a smaller body count. I suspect it was as bad or worse in the 60s and 70s, when he wrote most of his books.

I discovered Sciascia through a list my friend made on The Powdered Wig. His book is very short, less than two hundred pages, and begins like an ordinary crime novel: a fairly unremarkable pharmacist receives a death threat saying that he will have to atone for a past crime, doesn't take it seriously, and is then killed along with a friend of his while they are hunting. People (mostly men) talk about the murder and spin out various webs of conjecture, then largely forget about it and move on to politics and other subjects. One man, a professor, something of a misfit inside these chattering groups, thinks he has a clue to the crime. Slowly, as he talks to various people (the book is filled with talking) he thinks he sees what was really going on with the murders.


No brilliant sleuthing is done, and the things he finds out many people already know. Unlike other detective novels, there is no great ingenuity in the crime. But there is something about Sciascia's book that gives it an emotional power and a feeling of greatness that most mysteries do not even aim for. I think its power lies in the fact that, as the professor conducts his desultory researches, the novel slowly takes in the entire society and, finally, implicates it in the crime, even as very few people are revealed to be guilty of anything.

Most mystery novels - as befits the increasingly atomistic life led in the countries where such books are produced - have a small cast of separate characters, each of whom is a potential suspect; they may have some connections to each other, but they are isolated and examined like specimens. Such books are not written out of the life of a society, as most of the great 19th century novels were. Modern novels do not show individuals against such a backdrop because such unified communities rarely exist anymore, even in rural areas. Sicily, at least when Sciascia wrote, still had the feeling of the sort of traditional communities that George Eliot or Hardy depicted and, as with those writers, this novel's power comes largely from the isolation of the main character from the society that surrounds him, a society that reveals itself in the end to be shot through with hypocrisy and corruption.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Adolphe, by Benjamin Constant

There is a great deal of art created about being in love, but very little about not being in love – or not being quite sure what’s going on – despite the fact that the latter states are probably substantially more common and, finally, no less dramatic. They are, however, rather un-heroic and also somewhat unpleasant to read about. When you do come across characters who are not naturally passionate, they are usually depicted from the outside – from the perspective of the ardent lover as, for example, in Great Expectations – and very rarely get to explain their point of view. They only exist to be won over (or not) by the lover, and the assumption is always that there is something a little wrong with them.

Adolphe is one of the few novels told in the voice of a person who cannot easily respond to another person’s love (the only other book that comes immediately to mind is A Hero of Our Time). The narrator, Adolphe, is an intelligent young man, given to analysis and raised in a household without much affection, who begins a relationship almost as an experiment – and also because he understands that this is what people are supposed to do. The woman is already the mistress of a Duke, and has two children with him but no real rights as acknowledged by society. (The novel is two hundred years old, by the way, and in French.) Adolphe is familiar with the things that he is supposed to say and how he is supposed to act, and in doing these things almost convinces himself that he is actually in love – for a short time, in fact, he might feel something similar to the real thing.

Eventually, the woman succumbs, and as far as the reader can tell she is entirely in earnest. She gives up everything for him. Rather quickly, Adolphe’s ardor entirely cools, but he feels unable to detach himself from her. He alternates between trying to be honest about his feelings and then, when he sees her getting more and more distraught, rapidly feigns emotions that he desperately wants to feel but no longer does. She is not really fooled but also cannot live with the truth, so she is continuously either furious or miserable.

It proceeds in this manner for some time. Constant apparently wrote the novel as a form of therapy, and had no intention of publishing it until he had some serious financial trouble and desperately needed the money. He is obviously depicting his own character in the narrator, as well as a combination of past relationships, but he is fair to everyone and honest about himself in a way that I cannot imagine was easy.

Constant is famous, to the extent that people know him at all, as a political philosopher; this is his only novel and he is clearly not a born storyteller. He has only a modicum of narrative skill; the story is mainly used to pick up the central dilemma – an imbalance of love – and turn it so that it shows a different face. What if the woman sacrifices even more, he asks, what if the man thinks he has a brilliant career waiting for him, what role does a lack of money play, or a surfeit of it? And then the narrator analyzes the situation again from this vantage point.

This narrative method means that the novel has aged incredibly well; it only shows the passage of two hundred years in the short intervals in which the plot is relevant. Surprisingly, this penchant for analysis makes the novel no less moving. I read the novel in French (dictionary in hand) and found the end almost made me cry. The same was true, in fact, of Manon Lescaut, the only other book that I have read entirely in French. Part of the reason is that in English I am continually conscious of how the language is being used; in French – where I have no real aesthetic sense for prose – I can read like I did when I was child, purely for story and emotion.

In any case, read it in any language that you can manage. It is only about a hundred pages long – roughly the same length as He’s Just Not That Into You, but with a great deal more wisdom. There was a passage from Sons and Lovers that I remembered only after I finished the book, which could easily serve as its epigraph. It is just a conversation between two adolescents, but it is an unsophisticated restatement of the same problem that animates this novel.

That same evening they were walking along under the trees by Nether Green. He was talking to her fretfully, seemed to be struggling to convince himself.

“You know,” he said, with an effort, “if one person loves, the other does.”

“Ah!” she answered. “Like mother said to me when I was little, ‘Love begets love.’”

“Yes, something like that, I think it must be.”

“I hope so, because, if it were not, love might be a very terrible thing,” she said.

“Yes, but it is – at least with most people,” he answered.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Galaxy Quest

I always thought I was the one person that liked this movie, but apparently the cult is spreading. David Mamet likes it! (Apparently he calls it a "perfect film" in his new book.) Like most people, I saw the ads for Galaxy Quest, grouped it with the other disposable Tim Allen fare that appears every six months like a cold to be shaken off, and vowed never to see it. One night in college, I ran across it on cable close to the beginning and was quickly rapt.

The basic idea is that aliens from space have been receiving broadcasts of a long-cancelled Star Trek-like show called Galaxy Quest. These aliens have no concept of fiction or any form of dishonesty, took these episodes as real historical documents, and decided to model their civilization around them. Because of their absence of guile, they are being rapidly and effortlessly exterminated by a militaristic civilization eager to steal a mysterious device of theirs that might be useful as a weapon. Finally, in desperation, these aliens, the Thermians, beam up the brave crew of actors that they have been trying to emulate for all these years.

The really wonderful part of Galaxy Quest is the depiction of the Thermians and their society of innocents. The rest of it is fairly clever and well-crafted, with the usual nods to convention (arcs of flaws and redemption, a long-simmering romance) - all good and satisfying but not extraordinary. The Thermians, though, are a stroke of genius. Even when they are played for laughs (they have seen Gilligan's Island, for example, and think that it is tragic) they remain more beautiful than ridiculous. They reminded me of Nabokov's quote about Don Quixote: "We do not laugh at him any longer. He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant. The parody has become a paragon." In much the same way, the Thermians' delusions actually make them act in ways that are much more admirable than the people who supposedly see things as they are.

At some point, of course, one realizes that they will have to be woken up to the reality of who these actors actually are, and the real nature of the world at large; and this moment - like the defeat of Don Quixote at the end of the novel - is somehow unbearably sad. In both cases a dream world is destroyed that is much more beautiful than the real one. It would have been simple for the movie to mock the sort of people that attend Star Trek conventions, but it instead presents them fondly and with some measure of respect. And this connects to its vision of the Thermians - the entire movie is about imaginary worlds and the value of believing in them.

Anyway, go rent it or place it in your queue - it will almost certainly be available.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Powdered Wig

I had an idea at work: a blog that consists entirely of lists of various things. Good books from various decades, underappreciated movies, songs either about or containing the word "cowboy." I've always liked such lists and have discovered lots of good things that way (especially from the Modern Library Non-Fiction List). The actual rankings are not to be taken too seriously, but the process of making them tends to focus thought; and as a general assertion of value, I think they are worthwhile.

Anyway, I made the site and invited several people. It is called The Powdered Wig. It is still getting off the ground, but it needs help and if anyone who reads this blog would like to contribute, please send an e-mail. There is a CONTACT link on the right.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

What is the What, by Dave Eggers

While I was waiting for this book to get off the hold list at the library, I actually went to a function in Cambridge with Dave Eggers, Samantha Power, and Valentino Achak Deng. Deng is Sudanese, one of many boys that were displaced by the civil war in the 90s, ended up in refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, and were finally allowed to immigrate to America where they were collectively nicknamed the Lost Boys. The book is the semi-fictionalized story of his life.

Hearing Deng speak added a dimension to this book, I think, that it might otherwise have missed. He has a quality about him that I can only describe as saintly. Power and Eggers both seemed like good, smart people and they said the things about Sudan that one would expect good, smart people to say. Valentino didn't say anything particularly incisive and had little in the way of geopolitical advice; all he appeared to have was a boundless and possibly unjustified belief in human kindness. At one point, for example, he mentioned that he hoped that various people would read this book - the people in Atlanta that robbed him and beat him unconscious, for example - and hoped that they would realize that they should not treat people this way. And this did not seem at all affected or self-consciously generous; he both realized that it was unlikely and still hoped that it might happen. It was easy to see, at the end of the evening, why so many people have gravitated to him and trusted him as a leader, and also why he has been such a magnet for misfortune, especially in America, since unusually decent people seem to attract cruelty.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book a lot. I can't think of the last novel that I read so quickly without any boredom or fatigue. Even though the book's prose did not remind me of Deng's voice as he spoke at the assembly, it was completely convincing while I was reading. The book also reintroduces something that I think has been missing from the modern novel for a long time: reticence. Sudanese people are not comfortable talking openly about sex or describing their various desires, and Eggers respects this. One of my favorite lines in the book is a description of a woman that Deng is in love with; he calls her "a dramatically shaped woman" - and then he clumsily adds something else like "a woman in every particular." Anyway, reticence gives this novel its feeling of genuineness and a lot of its charm, and it does have charm; there is joy and humor as well as massacres and death. And it is thankfully the story of individuals instead of an attempt to create a sort of representative man for all the Sudanese who survived the war and came to America.

There was a single rhetorical flourish that I disliked but I don't think the book could do without. The novel opens with people breaking into Valentino's apartment and tying him up; the entire novel, in fact, deals with the day and half after this takes place - getting loose, going to the hospital, going to work. And the entire story of his life is told in sections during this awful day. The transitions are created with Deng mentally addressing the people around him and telling them his story: first a little boy who has been sent to guard him while he's tied up, then a nurse in the hospital, and various people at the health club where he works.

I could see why it was an effective tool for transitions - and at the end, the larger point that was made by telling the story this way - but it seemed contrived to me and not quite right for the character. There was something self-conscious about it. But I also noticed that the novel's energy flagged when there was no one to address - for example, the very beginning, and an 100-page stretch between the hospital and Deng's work - so maybe it was something that Eggers needed for the book to click somehow.

There are perhaps other flaws, but they are not worth going on about - this is an honest well-written novel and it deserves the audience that it appears to have found. It is worth rereading and accomplishes the central task of realistic art: the enlargement of sympathies. A lot of people at the assembly expressed concerns about what was real and what was not in this semi-fictionalized novel; I had some too at the beginning and I don't think it's a false problem, but my concerns disappeared while I was reading. I could sense occasionally that Eggers had probably collapsed certain material into the book - one of the boys that had been kidnapped and enslaved, for example, might not actually have been Deng's friend from the village - but none of it felt like real exaggeration or embellishment (that is, falsehood) and I never had significant reservations.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The First Man, by Albert Camus

I have always had mixed feelings about Camus. I read his three major novels – two of them twice – and always felt like I was missing something. I was never bored but I remember straining very hard to find the profundity that was supposed to be there and never coming up with anything. The Stranger seemed like it was about someone from another planet, and fascinating as it was I never felt like it was saying anything particularly true about human nature. There were some cutting passages in The Fall, but again, I felt like something essential had again been pared away and left a document that was somehow not fully human enough to be a great novel. The Plague, honestly, I barely remember, except for a strange flatness that hung over the entire thing, from the setting down to its gray narration.

It was not until I came to Camus’s essays – selections from his Actuelles, collected in English as Resistance, Rebellion, and Death – that I started to get some sense of why people consider him a great writer. Here at last was a whole person. Every page had a sense of immense honesty and, for me at least, nobility – the voice came from a man who thought things out from himself and felt intensely that it was his responsibility to convince people of what he believed was the truth. Like Orwell, like John Holt, I get a sense from his pages that he feels that communication with many different sorts of people is possible, and that his prose is motivated, before any consideration of beauty, with reaching them.

It is for this reason that Reflections on the Guillotine and The Unbeliever and Christians are so strange to read in today’s political climate. Despite the fact that people are still producing hundreds of articles on the death penalty and the place of religion in society, with many of the same points that Camus made, something about his voice is totally different. One feels that he includes in his audience people who don’t agree with him and makes an honest effort to change their minds. He actually believes that intellectual debate is possible. He occasionally even concedes that in past arguments he has been wrong (incredible!). I have very little idea what sort of life he led, but I get the impression that he was a good man. To paraphrase a line out of his last novel, there are people who vindicate the world just by existing, and he is one of them.


That last novel is The First Man, and I had actually never heard of it until I saw a huge number of copies sitting on the library shelf. Apparently it was an unrevised first draft, written by hand, that he was working on when he died; it was found in his bag, sitting in the car that he crashed in. It is the best thing he ever wrote, and if he got a chance to finish it I think it would have been one of the world’s great novels. At the moment, all that is even close to finished is the sections about his childhood in Algeria (almost completely autobiographical, apparently) but it is still some of the most beautiful and warm-hearted writing I have ever read, and the fact that such finished passages spooled onto the paper with barely any edits makes me convinced that there is such a thing as genius and inspiration.

There is no real plot, yet. It is just the story of a poor, gifted kid growing up in Algeria. His father died when he was still an infant and he is raised along with his brother by his half-deaf mother, his handicapped uncle, and his grandmother. Everyone in the family besides the two boys is illiterate, and it is a hard life that is still filled with joy. When you look at the notes, it is clear that the book is as motivated by ideas as Camus’s other novels – what it is like to grow up without a past, the psychological impact of poverty – but here the ideas are wearing flesh and blood; they come out of the material instead of the other way around. There are also some sections that have no thematic importance at all, that are just there to communicate the pleasure of being a child and playing with friends.

I love reading but I am very rarely moved by novels anymore, and I was by this one – on its own merits and also, although this is purely secondary, because of how Camus died. There is something unbearably sad about an artist dying precisely at the moment that he finds his true voice, his greatest voice. It is the same feeling I get when listening to Sam Cooke’s last records. I remember laughing when I came across a note that Camus had added to the end of an ordinary sentence; it said, for no reason that I could make out, “Exoticism pea soup.” And it seemed so strange and sad that no will ever know what he was thinking when he wrote that to himself.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Huckleberry Finn

After a decade or so, I picked up Huckleberry Finn again. I’m not sure if I was a slow child, but I don’t remember getting very much out of it in high school. I really wonder whether there is any point in giving children great books. Maybe we should just let them read whatever they want. Almost everything assigned was wasted on me, from Don Quixote to Donne’s poetry. I only noticed what I missed years later, reading on my own.

In this case, I bow to the consensus. This book is as beautiful as anything in English literature. When I re-read Gatsby, I started wondering whether the other American classics lived up to their reputations, but no revaluation is necessary here. Moby Dick is as great as people say; so is Leaves of Grass, so is Huckleberry Finn. They are wild, cobbled-together messes, but they are the genuine article. All books of travel, all with immense, swirling casts of characters, all somehow centerless, tied to no single place or community. America!

Well, I’m not sure what has happened to my country. We still produce the big wild books, but the vitality is somehow gone. The vitality is gone in more and more places every day. In Twain and Melville’s picaresques, I get a sense of immense freedom and space — in Pynchon and Barth, the capers seem frantic and somehow childish, a terror of boredom instead of a joy at possibilities.

Let me type a passage out for you. Read it and remember that there was a time when America held out a promise of freedom that was like nothing that had ever been offered before. There were slaves then and there are detainees now, but when I read certain books that this country has produced, I refuse to believe that this promise was ever entirely a lie. Maybe it will contain some truth again one of these days. Anyway, I have built it up too much, but here it is — Huck pushes off in his canoe at night, because his father is looking for him:
I didn’t lose no time. The next time I was a-spinning down stream soft but quick in the shade of the bank. I made two mile and a half, and then struck out a quarter of a mile or more towards the middle of the river, because pretty soon I would be passing the ferry landing and people might see me and hail me. I got amongst the driftwood and then laid down in the bottom of the canoe and let her float. I laid there and had a good rest and a smoke out of my pipe, looking away into the sky, not a cloud in it. The sky looks ever so deep when you lay down on your back in the moonshine; I never knowed it before. And how far a body can hear on the water such nights! I heard people talking on the ferry landing. I heard what they said, too, every word of it. One man said it was getting towards the long days and the short nights, now. ‘Tother one said this warn’t one of the short ones, he reckoned – and then they laughed, and he said it over again and they laughed again; then they waked up another fellow and told him, and laughed, but he didn’t laugh; he ripped out something brisk and said let him alone. The first fellow said he ‘lowed to tell it to his old woman – she would think it was pretty good; but he said that warn’t nothing to some things he had said in his time. I heard one man say it was nearly three o’clock, and he hoped daylight wouldn’t wait more than a week longer. After that, the talk got further and further away, and I couldn’t make out the words any more, but I could hear the mumble; and now and then a laugh, too, but it seemed a long ways off.

How lovely is that? Anyone but a genius trying to create this effect would have describing the rocking of the boat, or the stars, or the rush of the water; Twain does it entirely with a pointless, beautiful conversation. The book is so much better than Twain’s others because here, for once, he has no fear of stillness. Until the end, that is. Then he returns to caper mode. And I must say, I dreaded getting to it and hated it as much as I was afraid I would. What an utterly awful close to a great book.

The ending has been defended by some very smart men, including T.S. Eliot, Kenneth Rexroth, and Lionel Trilling (anytime people agree that something is either very bad or very good, a critic somewhere is writing an essay). I can see their points (sort of) and still think that nothing will ever convince me to like that ending. Hemingway told people that they should stop reading when Jim is recaptured, because "This is the real end. The rest is cheating."

I agree, but I have a small modification. Like Hemingway, people usually say that the book’s inspiration flags when Tom Sawyer appears. This is not true; the decline actually begins earlier, and I can pinpoint the exact spot. After the Duke and the Dauphin run the Royal Nonesuch, and Jim has his wonderful line ("But, Huck, dese kings o’ ourn is regular rapscallions; dat’s just what dey is; dey’s reglar rapscallions") it is obvious that they should be jettisoned from the novel. They are minor, comic characters and their performance is over.

Instead, they take center stage for an immense caper. The Twain restlessness, that dread of stillness, comes back and continues from here until the end. The episode is hilarious, but it is the sort of thing that one can only read once — it is not, like what has come before, art. Tom’s adventures, his pointless manhandling of Jim, are just continuations of this trend and contain roughly the same amount of inspiration; they only feel worse because they affect a character that we care about, whereas the Duke-Dauphin escapade is entirely irrelevant.

I noticed something else recently, too. All of the books I’ve mentioned, all of these American classics — every single one is told in first person. Why is this? The American canon is dominated by first person narratives like no other national literature. I could make some lame guesses, but I have no real theory. It seems interesting, though.