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.