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.