Sunday, November 29, 2009

Some Lines from Herzen's Memoirs

Several years ago, I found a copy of the first volume of Alexander Herzen’s memoirs, translated by J.C. Duff. I’d picked it up because Isaiah Berlin – a brilliant man and a very reliable critic – had written that My Past & Thoughts, Herzen’s title for the six volumes of his memoirs, was one of the great monuments of Russian prose, along with War and Peace and a few other better known classics.

I finally picked up the first volume, called Childhood, Youth, and Exile, a few weeks ago, maybe because Herzen has been in the air (he’s a character in a recent Stoppard play that I haven’t seen). The memoirs are something of a mess and it’s easy to see why they’ve never become particularly popular, but so far I’m very glad to be reading them (I’ve been hunting for the remaining volumes).

The book was written in fits and starts, with brilliant and charming sections of obvious interest, like the section describing Napoleon’s burning of Moscow, giving way to private anecdotes related in far too much detail – various university shenanigans, for example, which even Herzen apologies for narrating at such length – until the narrative revives with an incisive observation or a moving character sketch (this happens repeatedly).

Here, for example, is a tossed-off observation about Herzen’s mother: “An exceedingly kind-hearted woman, but not strong-willed, she was utterly crushed by my father; and, as often happens with weak characters, she was apt to carry on a desperate opposition in matters of no importance.” Herzen’s opinions are rarely startling, but he has a gift for communicating the essence of an idea in a few sentences – a person’s character, or the atmosphere of a depressing provincial town. "The relative conventionality of his psychology makes it all the simpler and truer," D. S. Mirsky writes, but it is an earned conventionality. Herzen seems to have thought everything out for himself, accepting in the process a great deal of everyday wisdom as accurate. And so he moves in and out of the commonplace, and it is only later that you realize – Berlin points this out too – how original he is capable of being under his genial, conversational manner.

There was one passage in particular that I kept thinking about. It is about how Herzen found out he was an illegitimate child. Herzen’s father never married his mother according to the Russian rites, and gave his son an invented last name because he said that he was the child of his heart (Herz in German). Quite calmly, Herzen narrates this discovery
Children in general find out more than people think. They are easily put off, and forget for a time, but they persist in returning to the subject, especially if it is mysterious or alarming; and by their questions they get at the truth with surprising perseverance and ingenuity.

Once my curiosity was aroused, I soon learned all the details of my parents’ marriage – how my mother made up her mind to elope, how she was concealed in the Russian embassy at Cassel by uncle’s connivance, and then crossed the frontier disguised as a boy; and all this I found out without asking a single question.
Why did I find this passage so impressive? It was the second sentence, mainly, that was affecting me – “They are easily put off, and forget for a time, but they persist in returning to the subject...” There is Herzen’s insight into how children figure things out, but most of the passage’s originality is produced by the interval of time separating Herzen’s era of storytelling from ours.

I tried to imagine myself writing a story about a child in this situation and realized I would never have written that second sentence, which covers so many years and casual attempts to figure out the truth. I would instead have thought of the crucial scene, the moment when the pieces fell into place for the child, and I would probably have succumbed to the cliché of the inquisitive child and had the boy ask lots of questions.

Modern writers almost always build their stories around such spots of time; very few would think of having a passage like Herzen’s, where a child is "easily put off" and then takes in vital knowledge in a mysterious, gradual way that doesn't lend itself to condensation into a scene or two.

Herzen’s method isn’t dramatically satisfying – it isn’t “good” storytelling – but I think it's much closer to how life is actually experienced. Looking back on my own childhood – or my adult life, for that matter - it’s rare for me to be able to pinpoint a moment where something profound was learned. Such lessons, for most of us, are simply absorbed, and it’s only after we’ve already made them part of our way of looking at the world that we realize that anything at all has changed. This is just the sort of experience Herzen describes, and yet modern storytellers relentlessly drive their characters towards epiphanies, something I’m quite certain I’ve never had in my life.

Film and television, I think, are partially responsible. We have been raised on a storytelling medium that cannot comfortably depict gradual change: a second on screen in a second in life, and to give an audience the transformation that makes a story satisfying and consequential, artists often have to fabricate a “moment” that communicates this change.

Then again, the same is often true of Dickens, so perhaps the real culprit is the impulse to entertain – to create vividness on the page for a mass audience – which overwhelms the desire to tell the truth.

This is not a small matter, because storytelling is how most of us learn to look at our lives and create a sense of significance – we’re always writing a narrative that leads somewhere. And if we’re unable to stitch together these moments into a coherent story that has, for us, the ring of truth, life can seem pointless, or worth living only for isolated moments which form no narrative. There are always ready-made stories, of course, but most people have to do some work to fit their lives comfortably into them.

Guy Davenport has said this beautifully: "We all lead a moral inner life of the spirit, on which religion, philosophy, and tacit opinion have many claims. To reflect on this inner life rationally is a skill no longer taught, though successful introspection, if it can make us at peace with ourselves, is sanity itself."

Davenport is writing about Plutarch and Montaigne, and part of his point is that words, if we retain a sense of how to use them, are by far the best tools for this introspection. As even that ordinary passage from Herzen shows, we haven’t come up with anything better to describe the texture and flow of our thoughts and spirit, and our obsession with giving our narratives immediacy encourages a falsification of reality that I think damages our ability to be truthful about our lives.

As Davenport says, no one teaches this skill anymore, but there are still books – Herzen’s is one of them – that show us how it might be done. He survived personal agonies that would destroy most people, and lived through an era when revolutionary fervor was often accompanied by the sacrifice of every ordinary human value. But he never stopped being generous and thoughtful; he knew how to meditate on his experience, find words for it, and put himself at least somewhat at peace.

He didn't end up writing anything like a cohesive work of art, I suppose. Characters take center stage and then disappear, again and again, and one doesn't get a sense of how it all fits together, except for the consciousness through which the events are presented. But, as with Gandhi's memoirs, I prefer this book for its lack of self-conscious artistry. Neither man was too concerned with literary perfection, just telling people how he saw things. If you've lived and thought well enough, it turns out, that's plenty.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Back, by Henry Green

I’ve only read a few books in my life with awe: Anna Karenina was one, when I was 19, and Party Going was another, a few years later, read at a single sitting in a dark corner of the college library. I’d discovered an ugly paperback in a used bookstore a few days earlier containing three of Henry Green’s novels: Loving, Living, and Party Going. The cover was filled with praise – extravagant praise, not the polite bookjacket variety – from people like W.H. Auden and Rebecca West, and I bought the book because I was curious why I’d never heard anything about the author.

Within three pages of Party Going I couldn’t stop. Not because of plot, because there was almost none, and not because of fine writing, because Green’s sentences were often baffling, and certainly not because I liked the characters, because they were virtually interchangeable, not particularly bright, and had few apparent concerns other than sleeping with each other. But I knew almost immediately that this was one of the great reading experiences of my life. Like Tolstoy – and this is the only similarity – ordinary life seemed to be taking on an intensity and strangeness that it had never possessed before on a page.

In Anna Karenina, though, I had some sense of how Tolstoy was doing it. There were insights to admire, huge passages where you could see how the spell was being cast phrase by phrase. With Green I had no idea, and still don’t. I’ve never even recommended Party Going to anyone because I’m at a loss to explain why I think it’s such a great book, and I’m not sure who else it would appeal to.

Over the years, Green has accumulated an odd coterie of admirers – Updike, Eudora Welty, Tim Parks, Terry Southern – and, as far as I can tell, very few readers. Each admirer also tends to connect with a different set of Green’s books because they are extraordinarily dissimilar. Despite some obvious stylistic similarities – the preponderance of dialogue, the occasional dropping of articles, strange word orders – each novel takes on a different method of storytelling and an entirely new set of narrative problems. And unlike, say, D.H. Lawrence, Green doesn’t have a stable set of moral concerns, and occasionally appears to have no concerns at all: his books don’t seem to be making points or pushing any view of the world on the reader. At first, it’s hard to see what drove Green to write them, and indeed Green wasn’t too sure himself. He had plenty of money and a job available to him running his family’s factory, and he apparently wrote novels because he couldn’t help it. He once said that he was no more proud of producing his books than growing fingernails.

Green's books are the work of a genuine savant. He never seems to have struggled through a derivative phrase, and his earlier books (the first was published when he was 19) are just as singular, in different ways, as his later ones. All of his novels, plus one extraordinary memoir, seem to casually shrug off the entire history of the art form – every familiar narrative device, every piece of emotional shorthand that we’ve come to expect as readers – and cut closer to the truth of lived experience than any writer I’ve come across.

Which is not to say that everything he wrote is a masterpiece. None of the four other Green novels I’ve read has given me the same sense of finished perfection as Party Going, but each has its wonders. Loving is probably the most charming of Green’s books, the most filled with characterization and plot and the sort of satisfactions one expects from novels, but it’s also a little sentimental, too broadly comic, the tiniest bit predictable.

It’s still a great book, though, and so are the others. Slowly, people are bringing them back into print (the Penguin edition with the three novels, and a fantastic introduction from Updike, was the only one available for a long time). Dalkey Archive Press has just re-issued Back, one of Green’s least-known novels, with the ugliest, most dashed-off cover I’ve ever seen on a modern book. Oh well. What’s inside is wonderful. I picked it up after reading Philip Hensher’s review of Jeremy Treglown’s dull biography of Green, which I slogged through several years ago (Hensher’s review is also a fine appreciation of Green’s work).

Back is about Charley Summers, a veteran returning from a German prison camp, and now using a wooden leg. The war is almost over and the streets are still filled with bombed out ruins. The woman Charley loved – who married someone else before he even left – died while he was in the camp, but not before having a child that Charley thinks might be his. Then Charley runs across a woman who looks exactly like his dead lover, a resemblance which is eventually explained, and he begins to lose his already disordered grasp on reality.

Already, this is like no other Green novel I’ve read: the focus on a single protagonist, the exploration of irregular mental states, and also the huge amount of plot covered in the first fifty pages. The book gets a little bogged down in the beginning, because Green dislikes narrative summary, and has to provide all of this information through conversations and little wisps of thought and suggestion. So there are some rickety scenes that seem to exist only to give us plot cues. But one survives on the touches. Here is a fairly ordinary passage, early in the book when Charley goes to visit his lover’s graveyard:
His felt thoughts began to wander. Of course he was lucky to have a job, his seat kept warm. There were plenty still over on the other side would give the cool moon to stand in his shoes. And they would get on with it if they were here, not spend as he was doing a deal of money on travelling to old places.
Start reading any of Green’s books and some long dormant faculty in the brain becomes alert. The words are simple enough but the phrases never seem to slide into their usual slots, to be skimmed and forgotten – you have to read slowly, but it feels like an engrossing conversation rather than work. Why is “as he was doing” tucked into the middle of that sentence, comma free? And what in the world does he mean by “felt thoughts”? (I’m still not sure about the latter.) In this heightened state of attention, awake but slightly disoriented, strange bits of poetry come floating to us down the sentences – “would give the cool moon to stand in his shoes.” Not showy lyricism, but ordinary speech at its most expressive.

Those words aren’t Charley’s, but society’s voice echoing in his head – “the cool moon,” a folk phrase – telling him how lucky he is to be back from the camps with a job to support him. Even when Green’s characters are alone, they are always talking to each other, as we all do, imagining what some person or group will think of us. This is why, despite the small casts of Green’s novels, their slim length, and the virtual absence of historical detail, they feel as dense and comprehensive as the great Victorian triple-deckers; society is still present in these books, talking to and through the characters.

Back, in particular, strikes me as having the literary sensibility of an earlier time. What other writer of Green’s era would feel comfortable taking a step back from a character and saying, simply, “She was a good-hearted girl”? And in the conversations that make up the majority of Green’s later novels, a narrative presence will suddenly leap up after a “he said” to mention that the previous remark was a lie. Green cannot entirely abandon the prerogatives of the 19th century novelist, and he hovers over his books and gestures now and then towards a world of stable truth that most other modernist writers became uncomfortable with and finally abandoned.

The book, for a time, shifts back in tone further even than the Victorians. Green introduces a long extract from an 18th century French court memoir, a parallel narrative about a woman becoming obsessed with a man who looks like a long dead lover. This interpolation, only thinly integrated into the narrative, wrecks the world of the book a little, but it is interesting enough for me to forgive its presence, especially since it sets up the second half of the novel, which is masterful.

Green has gotten the plot setup out of the way, and what follows is one of the most moving and strangely convincing love stories I’ve ever read, alive with pain and sex and a little dementia. The two people don’t come to gradually appreciate each other's fine qualities in the usual manner; the process is much more mysterious and true to life, with feints and turns and sudden irrational changes in mood and then the final coming to terms – and through it all the charge of sexual energy that drives all of Green’s best work.

Here is another passage. Charley’s secretary at the office, Miss Pitter, has been invited to a house in the country. She is sure Charley will come visit her at night, and she is waiting in bed, listening for him:
So they came back to the house with her, and she’d slipped upstairs, got into a smashing pyjama suit bought specially the day before, put out the light and, quaking with wonder, she’d lain there. She could hear them talk in the kitchen. And how they’d talked. Then they came up. And she’d wondered some more. Her own worst enemy would not have laughed at her that half hour. Even if it wasn’t the first time, of course. But nothing. She was all ready, pretending to be asleep, spread out like butter on bread. But nothing. She knew it was Charley when he went to the bathroom. For just that minute it was delicious to wait. But what all this added up to, she felt at the time, was that these repatriated men came back very queer from those camps. So in the end she’d gone to sleep alone, unvisited.
This is all done effortlessly, but so many voices have swooped in and out, taking us inside the character’s mind in her own words ("smashing pyjama suit") and the narrator's ("quaking with wonder"), and then moving us into the world of larger truth – where we learn that Miss Pitter has done this before – and then that marvelous phrase, “spread out like butter on bread,” where we get her thought, the warmth of the bed, and sexual anticipation all at once. And look at how the rhythms of her heartbeat have been embedded in the prose.

Then there is the oddest line of all: “Her own worst enemy would not have laughed at her that half hour.” I think much of Green’s spirit, his generosity, is in that line. He is deeply truthful writer, often a dark one, but he never enjoys inflicting disaster on his characters and makes allowances for every human weakness. His dialogue is filled with such affection for people and their peculiarities - "We're not talking of me, this instant minute, thanks" - as well as the peculiarities of class and region and profession, all of which may blur but will never disappear.

I'm not sure why Green stopped writing. He died in the early 70s, without publishing a word after 1952. Apparently he spent much of that time drunk. I don't want to pretend that I have any explanation for this, but I wonder if part of his dryness came from the loss of the vernacular culture from which he drew so much of his inspiration. Synge wrote that "All art is a collaboration; and there is little doubt that in the happy ages of literature, striking and beautiful phrases were as ready to the story-teller's or the playwright's hand, as the rich cloaks and dresses of his time. It is probable that the Elizabethan dramatist took his ink-horn and sat down to his work he used many phrases that he had just heard, as he sat at dinner, from his mother or his children." In Pack My Bag, Green has wonderful samples of working class British talk: "When they describe," he writes, "as everyone knows, they are literally unsurpassed in the spoken word." And one can imagine him listening to maids and workers and the office typing pool, all of their words mixing with his imagination and becoming art.

Much of that world was already going after the war, and maybe Green was himself withdrawing from what was left of it. In any case, it survives in the books - nine novels and a memoir - and it is among the great fictional universes left by any writer this century, a happy age of literature all by itself. The Penguin volume is probably the place to start, but this is another great one for those that fall under the spell.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Some Thoughts on Vegetarianism

I’ve come across many arguments for vegetarianism recently, and they’ve started to connect with thoughts I’ve had, since I wrote my article on torture, about the consequences of intellectual versus moral justifications for our actions. And I’ve become convinced that making intellectual arguments against certain issues is pointless, and is often a subtle way for the society that accepts them as legitimate to avoid changing its behavior, just as the politicians who talked about America’s “national character” during the detainee debates were so easily satisfied with symbolic remedies instead of real ones.

I should define my terms, since I might be using them in a peculiar way. I think there are two ways to determine the desirability of an action: one of them is to determine its consequences for the actor and society at large. These are intellectual reasons, because they demand a chain of reasoning which necessarily moves the thinker away from the act itself. Moral reasons stem from direct encounters – such as a look at these interrogation documents – and are based on instinctual revulsion that does not need any additional justification. Such responses can only be rebutted by looking at the acts and saying, “I honestly do not feel what you feel when I see this.”

Since such reasons are subjective, they are rarely used in serious arguments and are often seen as a form of sentimental muddle-headedness when they are. So it makes sense that, for years, the primary arguments for vegetarianism have been intellectual: the low nutritional value of the food produced by factory farming, for example, or the environmental consequences of eating meat, which involves the expenditure of vast quantities of water and land to produce a comparatively small amount of flesh, compared with plant-based food.

As with most intellectual arguments, these can be responded to with at least some logic, as Sandor Ellix Katz does in his bookon America’s underground food movements. I picked it up because I enjoyed his book on fermentation,which was full of interesting knowledge.

Katz has a chapter on meat where he responds to the arguments mentioned above: by spending a little extra money and time, it is fairly simple to find free range meat. And he points out that there is plenty of non-arable land that can be used to sustain small scale ranching. Clearly he's right. I spent some time on the coast of Madagascar and found a herd of very sprightly goats living off the meager vegetation that grew a few hundred yards from the ocean. Clearly, this land is more productive - for humans, of course - when creating meat and milk instead of growing wild.

So for many years, I could respond intellectually to such arguments and kept eating whatever I wanted. During that same stay in Africa, though, a different sort of encounter was forced on me. Our neighbors in Antananarivo were slaughtering two goats and I happened to be around to see them do it, because I heard the screaming of the second goat – which sounds, by the way, disturbingly human – as he watched what was happening to the first goat. The throat of each animal was cut, and blood pumped out of the body for a minute or so while the goat thrashed. Then it died, was skinned and butchered, and we were given some of the meat as a gift.

A few hours later, I ate the meat happily with everyone else – it was delicious, as you can expect – but it occurred to me that I would never have been able to kill the goat myself, even if I had the skills to do it properly. Killing a tame and immobilized animal seemed, and seems, completely repellent to me. I wondered if it was just squeamishness, so I conducted a thought experiment: I imagined standing behind a glass wall and pushing a button to kill the same goat, as neatly and humanely as possible, and realized that I still wouldn’t be able to do it. The act was morally repulsive, not merely unpleasant or gross.

These realizations took some time to filter through my consciousness, because habit is powerful, but eventually they did. I cut down on meat for a while – there were cravings, and occasionally still are – but for a few years I’ve eaten almost none, because I’ve never been able to shake the thought that it’s quite obviously wrong to ask other people (or machines) to do things that you are morally unwilling to do yourself.

The odd thing is that I’m certain that my reaction is common enough: only a fraction of people in the Western world would be able to cut that goat’s throat – or a cow or pig or chicken’s – especially many dozens of times a year, but almost all of them are comfortable letting someone else do it. I don’t think there’s any other area of modern life with such an immense disconnect between moral capacity and actual behavior – and the reason, as with torture, is the dominance of intellectual arguments even among thoughtful people.

Such arguments, by their very nature, are focused on human outcomes. For example, anytime I hear that someone is deciding to try vegetarianism because of their health – they’ve read some horrific story about how the unnatural diet of industrial cattle makes their meat nutritionally barren, or whatever – I know that their resolution won’t last long. Eventually, they will find meat that promises to be naturally raised and this will be enough. Then, once the question has entered the realm of consumer choice, something strange happens: the distinctions stop feeling important. You buy humane meat when you can, but you don’t protest when it isn’t available.

The same thing happens to me with Fair Trade products, the intellectual reasons for which I entirely appreciate. I get them on the rare occasions when I’m feeling adequately flush with cash to buy a little righteousness, but not otherwise. As with organic produce, the issue hasn’t put down any moral roots yet.

An intellectual commitment with a shallow moral basis will always be satisfied with words. My Costco dish soap says “Environmentally Friendly” and contains virtually no other information, and I swear I still felt good buying it. The words were enough; they gave me a little moral back rub, and that’s all I needed. I’m not bragging about my insensitivity - these things have real consequences. Listen to what happens to language, for example, when you don’t actually care what you’re doing. Here is Katz, who is usually intelligent and thoughtful, on humane slaughter:
The other major distinguishing factor for humane meat is how the animals are killed. Animals can be slaughtered with trauma, violence, and anonymity or calmly and quickly, with gratitude, tenderness, and even love. Intent and spirit can be as important as technique.
Words are being used here like odd colors daubed on an impressionistic painting – to create a kind of glow. But what possible meaning can they possess in this context? These animals are not terminally ill or in pain: how can they be killed with love? Do they experience it as gratitude, tenderness, or love when the blade cuts into them, or something very much like the opposite? Such words are flexible, but they do mean something, and they are being further debased to make normally compassionate people like Katz justify a purely selfish act, which should be acknowledged openly as what it is. "Made with love; raised with gratitude": Against the grain of his own beliefs, what Katz is using here is the language of modern commerce, which is eager to make us feel not just good but comprehensively good about every one of our indulgences.

There is one final consequence of having arguments on an intellectual plane – and it is a fixture of our political discourse, and perhaps of interest to the few people still reading this post. In the absence of any fixed scale of values, the only virtue becomes consistency. One group attacks the other for supposed hypocrisy, which is then used as an excuse for the former to make absolutely no moral demands on itself. Katz, for example, mentions that our breath kills millions of micro-organisms in the air, and Barbara Kingsolver, in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle argues that vegetarians are hypocritical because they ignore the deaths of field animals that are involved in the machine harvesting of many crops, which is something like saying that living in a building where a construction worker died is morally equivalent to throwing someone off the roof.

But anyone looking for contradictions will not have to look hard to find them. My apartment is filled with products that I’m sure required the death of animals. There’s a line from Tennyson that plays in my mind when I think about the repercussions of my most ordinary decisions and purchases: “And the spirit of murder works in the very means of life.” Our civilization is built on complicity, and we participate in a hundred appalling acts with every decision we make, every cent of tax that goes to our government. You just have to do the best you can – absence of hypocrisy is simply not a useful standard.

But looking at acts done for your benefit and deciding if you find them repulsive is a reasonable one, and is the only basis on which a fixed system of values could conceivably be determined in the absence of religious faith. Such moral encounters (with animals, with detainees, with civilians in countries we invade) are carefully hidden from us for a reason, but we need to seek them out, and trouble our beautiful minds with them, because we are so directly involved in what’s happening to them.

Some people will look at the same acts and not feel the way I feel, which is fine – I have no objective standard – but everyone should make the attempt to find out what they can live with. I'm not asking people to stare at gruesome videos: just spend some time around some of the animals we eat (they can be surprisingly hard to find, considering how many we consume) and think seriously about what it means to end one of their lives, and whether this strikes you as a necessary sacrifice.

I can’t make a moral connection with an oyster yet, for example, so I've eaten them occasionally (I'm less disturbed by the fishing and hunting of wild creatures in general). But I could relate to that goat, as well as other meat animals living in non-brutalized circumstances. I knew that I didn’t want the meat nearly as badly as the animal wanted to live.

With predatory creatures or traditional societies with limited food sources, there is a reasonable equivalence of desires, since not eating that meat would result in starvation or severe malnutrition. In Western societies, however, with our immense surpluses, we’ve gotten used to having our most casual desires trump the fundamental needs of other living creatures. We’re killing something, as David Foster Wallace put it in Consider the Lobster, merely because we like the feeling of a certain protein against our teeth.

In that same essay, Wallace also trots out a mainstay of vegetarian propaganda, which always assures the reader that vegetarians have a variety of equally delicious and healthy options: you can still get all the nutrients and flavors you need and deserve – hooray, no sacrifices required! This is disastrous intellectual ground on which to argue, because gourmandism is implicitly acknowledged to be a genuine counterweight to the moral argument. I think it’s quite plausible that vegetarianism is marginally less healthy and significantly less thrilling gastronomically than intelligently-pursued omnivorism. So what? Aren’t there any values that are worth defending to our own slight detriment?

Vegetarianism might well have some health costs, although I'm certain they are not severe, whereas eating decently-raised meat has, as far as I can see, only one human cost of any kind. In Kingsolver’s book, where her family raised and ate only local food for a year, her nine-year-old daughter knows not to name some of her chickens, so she “can face killing and selling them.”

There is a profound loss implied here. The desire to name these animals is close to instinctual. I doubt if there is a traditional culture in the world that does not individually identify the animals that it lives with closely, including some wild ones. These animals don’t always respond or care about these names, and there is often no practical reason to do it. The practice merely acknowledges what is obvious to anyone who has spent time, outside of a meat factory, with the land animals that we have tamed: that they are simple to differentiate, and have distinct personalities that one doesn't have to be a saint or a scientist to notice and appreciate. We view them as products only by stopping up certain springs of sympathy that are both natural and pleasant to us. And this is their loss and, less brutally, ours, because this sense of connection – along with the realization which accompanies it, that man is not a particularly lonely creature – is a source of contentment that we have increasingly abandoned. Vegetarianism does not produce this feeling, but it at least renders it an uncomplicated possibility. Which is a definite human cost, if that’s all we’re willing to care about.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

John Clare: A Biography, by Jonathan Bate

I've gobbled up dozens of literary biographies since college without ever encountering anything that seemed like a great book. The genre seems to attract writers who, despite their intelligence and doggedness and appreciation for the subject, are usually just too ordinary to have much insight into extraordinary talent. (Richard Holmes is a semi-exception.) But I keep reading them, and lately I’ve come to appreciate them more as anthologies: selections of illuminating excerpts by great authors and the people who knew them, with passages of relevant context.

Like a good anthology, I think a real biography should be long. Slimmer, supposedly "readable" biographies seem to be coming into fashion, but there is nothing less interesting than the bare details of a writer’s life; the best stuff will always be on paper, and if someone is worth writing about at all, she will have hundreds of interesting pages tucked away – letters, journals, stray articles, juvenilia, bits of table talk preserved by other people. So why not overstuff? The best literary biography – which, full disclosure, I have never finished – is by general consensus The Life of Johnson because Boswell put in everything he could find (and perhaps went a little overboard).

Note: I do not mean overstuffed with the sort of minutiae that fills bad doorstop biographies, like the dates on which an author visited various people and what they ate and wore; I mean overstuffed with a writer’s words and conversation.

Jonathan Bate’s 600-page biography of Clare is, luckily, stuffed in the right way. Even when there is little solid information about a period of Clare's life, like his childhood, Bate quotes his poems and journal entries to create the necessary background (Clare loved cataloging village rituals and lore, and wrote some of his loveliest poems about his childhood games and wanderings). And when, in his 20s, Clare finally sets out to collect subscribers to publish his first little volume of poems, the book begins to soar, because Bate now has a wealth of writing to work with. We get more of Clare's verse, and selections from his wonderful letters and prose pieces, written in the headlong, unpunctuated, but beautifully precise manner he used throughout his life.

For those who have not had the pleasure, here is a sample of one of Clare's autobiographical pieces about his early attempts at writing:

I became fond of scribbling from down right pleasure in giving vent to my feelings and long and pleasing and painful were my struggles to acquire a sufficient knowledge of the written english before I could put down my ideas on paper even so as to understand myself but I mastered it in time sufficiently to be understood by others and then I became an author by accident and felt astonished when the critics became my friends that they should have noticed me at all — and no less supprised at the mistakes they uttered — that one should imagine I had read the old poets when such were as far from my access as earth from heaven and that others should imagine I had coined words which were as common around me as the grass under my feet — and all these were burning encouragements that made me work on — as to profits — the greatest profits most congenial to my feelings were the friends it brought me and the names that it rendered familiar to my fireside — scraps of whose melodys I had heard and read in my corner — but had I only imagined for a moment that I should hold communion with such hereafter that would have then been to me ‘as music in mourning’ — but I wrote because it pleased me in sorrow—and when I am happy it makes me more happy and so I go on.
Forgive me for quoting at such length, but isn’t it difficult not to love this man? His voice comes across so clearly in his writing, so free of affectation and full of warmth, that one feels an immense affection for him that it's hard to feel for, say, Shelley. And throughout Clare’s life, people that met him felt the same way; even if they were patronizing or snobbish, they liked him and wanted to help him. A real intellectual collaboration developed between him and his early publishers, and Bate shows how important this literary society was for his artistic growth. And unlike the other great Romantics, Clare was greeted kindly by reviewers throughout his career, even if it was sometimes more for his up-from-nothing life story than his work.

After his first collection of poetry was published, Clare was the talk of the town for a few years, and Bate quotes extensively from his incisive pen portraits of the great figures of the age — Hazlitt, Lamb, de Quincey — whom he met during a handful of stays in London. Then comes the awful decline: money troubles, diminished sales, frequent drunkenness and womanizing, feelings of estrangement from his family, and growing mental instability, almost always dotted, however, with poems and prose sketches of extraordinary beauty and increasing mastery.

Bate is judicious: he isn’t so enamored with Clare that he overlooks his cruelty to his wife, his frequent irresponsibility, or the mess of barely legible manuscripts that he made his publishers wade through to cull individual volumes. Unfortunately, it is also around this point in the book that Bate feels the need to discuss the possible causes for Clare’s madness. Here is a sample of his reasoning:
Doctors often say that they can predict from an early age which of a group of children will have mental health problems later in life. It is usually the one who feels different: the misfit, the loner. Clare’s autobiographical writings reveal that he fell into this category. The hostility aroused by such a character in a small close-knit community led to village gossip that marked him out as too clever by half and likely to prove a lunatic. The sense of being a marked man made him feel more of an outsider and an oddity: the village prophecy that he would one day go mad contributed to its own fulfillment.
Isn’t there a whiff of the commonplace around this passage? Does Bate really think that such explanations — that he felt different from other people! — bring us any closer to understanding what happened to Clare? And this atmosphere — of reasonable intelligence coupled with a lack of imagination, of genuine love for the subject mixed with an inability to make any truly inspired acts of identification — hangs over even the best biographies I’ve read. These books are good at compiling and scene-sketching, but that deeper stab into the secret of an artist’s gift never seems to come; instead, we keep butting up against the biographer’s mundane attempts to "explain" the artist's personality.

Eventually, though, Bate has the good sense to give up on explanations. He simply quotes from the writing Clare did over his two decades in asylums: his poetry, his increasingly disordered journals, including some bizarre letters written in cipher, as well as visitors’ accounts of his behavior. Some of it is fascinating, since Clare was still capable of long periods of lucidity and inspiration, but as he becomes increasingly estranged from the things that once gave him joy – poetry, nature, his home, his family – it is mainly just heartbreaking.

Even with its desolate conclusion, though, Clare's life ends up feeling heroic instead of depressing. Few poets have done more with the talent given to them, and in the face of such obstacles. Robert Graves, who Bate quotes near the end of the book, comes closest to describing my feelings about Clare's work: "I find myself repeating whole poems of [his]," he wrote, "without having made a conscious effort to memorize them. And though it was taken as a symptom of madness that he one day confided in a visitor: ‘I know Gray — I know him well," I shall risk saying here, with equal affection: ‘I know Clare; I know him well.’" When you read his work, he always seems to be walking next to you, pointing out hundreds of things that you'd never noticed before or realized were beautiful; and while other poets shout and sing, conscious of their audience, and some seem to be whispering entirely to themselves, Clare is one of the rare ones who speaks to you in his ordinary voice, naturally, as one friend to another.

The best volume of his I have found is the Oxford Major Works, which contains poems along with prose sketches and a few letters. If you end up loving his work as much as I do, you’ll want to read Bate’s book, which does the things that a biography can manage to do, and does them well enough for me to be grateful.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker

Nothing makes people angrier than to have an author take away one certainty without replacing it with another. This is only explanation I can think of for the brutality of some of the reviews of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, his pointillist account of the beginning of World War II. I picked the book up from the remaindered table knowing nothing about it, although I enjoyed The Mezzanine a great deal when I read it years ago. And I was curious about the blurbs on the back of Human Smoke, one of which described it as possibly "the most compelling argument for peace ever assembled."

"Assembled" is right (although "argument" is a tougher issue) -- the book consists of vignettes, usually no more than half a page long and often drawn from newspapers as well as famous and not-so-famous memoirs. Each vignette contains an account of some event -- Albert Speer taking his father on a tour of some insane proposed Nazi architectural projects, or the trials of conscientious objectors from various countries -- along with a line stating the date on which the event occurred. Authorial comment is virtually absent, and Baker insisted in an interview with Charlie Rose, somewhat disingenuously, that his opinions are nowhere in the book.

I suspect that most people will react to Human Smoke the way I did. In the beginning, maybe the first 50 pages, it was thrilling, compulsive reading; points of detail appeared one after another, each marking off a little area of the world around the time of the war, a net closing in around a huge school of fish. But deeper into the book, I started getting a little bored; the holes in the net were too huge to catch anything at all, and the pointillist method started to seem like an easy way to avoid making a coherent argument.

And Baker clearly does have some arguments, which he makes largely by juxtaposition. He shows how the people who were most aggressive and militaristic in their attitude to Nazi Germany -- Churchill, for example -- were also the least generous towards the Jews trying to get out and all of the other people who were clearly going to suffer the most because of the war, while the pacifists -- who are usually characterized as cowardly or entirely blind to the amorality of the Nazi regime -- were much more active in trying to help the people that needed it.

Second, he illustrates that the Allies -- and, again, Churchill in particular -- had a large role in escalating the brutality and aimlessness of the slaughter by beginning civilian bombing campaigns and making mass starvation part of their war strategy. And, in what is certainly the most controversial implication of the book, he indicates that these decisions may well have led the Nazis to escalate the program of extermination which they had always planned, but only as one of several possible options for ridding their territory of Jews and other undesirables.

I should say at this point that I don't have nearly enough knowledge of the era to judge any of these claims, and certainly not the last one. One of the reasons this book can be frustrating is that Baker doesn't lay out the facts in a comprehensive way, where you can either be positively convinced under the weight of evidence or angrily accuse him of an obvious omission. So it's hard to finish Human Smoke feeling like it was a real contribution to the history of the war.

But it does, I think, hammer a couple of useful chinks in the wall of moral certainty that surrounds WWII more than any other war. And eventually, after I recognized that the book's narrative method would prevent it from fulfilling certain desires, I began to appreciate the disorienting buzz that it captured, the sense of being a normal person living through these events, looking in the papers every day and wondering what in the world might happen next. Because Baker can see that this confusion is in some ways closer to the truth than the false clarity that comes with hindsight.

As a responsible writer, Baker even throws sand in the face of what are clearly some of his own moral convictions: he has a vignette where someone points out the absurdity of a pacifist response to the Nazis. And he has several conflicting accounts of the Nazis plans for the Jews -- deportation to Madagascar is one of them -- without providing any guidance on which ones were seriously considered. He acknowledges that the facts are simply a mess, that any comprehensive explanation requires that too much be left out.

In the end, you simply don't know how the war could have been best fought (although clearly everyone should have been more generous to the refugees). Uncertainty is obviously one of Baker's goals, the one that I'm guessing has made several reviewers so angry, partially because it makes their job harder. Many of them have decided that Baker is making a simple case for pacifism, or arguing that the Allies were partially responsible for the Holocaust, neither of which he is actually doing. But these straw men are simple ways to dismiss the book, or at least to deal with it quickly.

In any case, although I wasn't hugely impressed, I'm glad I read it. If nothing else, there are dozens of fascinating details, and you make the acquaintance of several intelligent and inspiring men -- Mihail Sebastian, for example, and Victor Klemperer, whose diaries I both want to read now. And it makes the point, which somehow never stops needing to be made, that one should be suspicious of the humanitarian impulses of leaders who are willing to drop bombs on other people's cities and kill whoever happens to be around.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, by Joan Acocella

Willa Cather is an easy writer to undervalue. I’ve noticed, over the years, that many of the people who express admiration for her books (which I recommend often) are the sort of people who don’t usually read “serious” novels. Even in 7th grade, when I first read My Àntonia, I remember thinking, excellent, she doesn’t make you work too hard – and hard work and confusion, I assumed, for quite a long time, were the signs of a really great book. Cather, though, tends to make it clear enough what effect she’s aiming for: her symbols are monumental and apparently obvious, and when she has an idea, she doesn’t try to conceal it in some elaborate way; she tells you as clearly and gracefully as she can. Her books often feel artlessly constructed: one scene after another, and stories that seem inserted wherever the author felt like it.

But when I finished My Àntonia, all those years ago, and began the usual, unconscious process of assimilating the novel into my way of looking at the world, it stopped seeming so simple. There was something dark there that wouldn’t spread itself thin in my imagination and disappear. So I read the book again, several years later, and never felt like I was covering old ground, the simplest test of a classic. And as I read Cather’s other great books – A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, her short stories and essays – the outlines of a disturbing vision became apparent. Most of them are stories of disappointment, where everything good has already happened – and where hope for anything but a deeper appreciation of the past seems destined for failure.

Joan Acocella, in her wonderful little book on Cather and her critics, identifies this vision more precisely than I’d ever been able to manage myself: “Each of the four novels [from My Àntonia to Death Comes for the Archbishop],” she writes, “makes the same point: to desire something is to have as much of it as you will probably ever have.” Proust, Acocella points out, on the other side of the ocean, had a similar insight, and spent many more pages – wonderful pages – laying it out.

It is an insight, though, that it is difficult not to eventually rebel against, especially when an author insists too much: insists, for example, that mature romantic love is largely a lie, that most of our deepest feelings for other people are fantasies spun out by the imagination – and are, in fact, somehow more beautiful for being self-created, since this means we might actually be able to hold on to them. There can be something sickly and self-defeating about this outlook, and I got annoyed about halfway through Cather’s bitter, accomplished novella, My Mortal Enemy, which I wrote about a few years ago.

In Cather’s greatest books, however, the vision is bracing and honest – there is a convincing world on the page that gives the philosophy life. Each of these books is, in Cather’s own wonderful description of Norris’s McTeague, as “disagreeable as only a great piece of work can be.” Disagreeable in its deeper implications, I mean, but still filled with beauties, because Cather’s outlook is entirely compatible with humor and an appreciation of the world – especially the natural world – and its gifts.

As Acocella discusses, Cather has been ill-served by critics since the beginning. She never dealt explicitly with the concerns – political, economic, feminist, and now sexual – that serious, committed people, in various eras, wanted her to deal with. And so she was patronized, given faint praise, and occasionally condemned. In recent years, critics have started taking her very seriously indeed, but only because it has been decided (admittedly, with some evidence) that she was a lesbian, and so everything she wrote – as an outpouring of subconscious, repressed desires – has become relevant in the right ways.

Acocella makes these academics look pretty silly, but that isn’t too hard to do – all you have to do is quote, after all – and I became a little impatient with this part of the book, because I just don’t believe that these professors make much of a difference to ordinary readers. The majority of the book, luckily (minus a short, interesting biography), is simply an appreciation of Cather’s work, the best I have ever read. We have so little decent criticism in America that it’s easy to forget how useful and even stirring a real reading of great work can be.

Acocella looks closely at individual passages and shows how tightly knit they are, despite the illusion of artlessness - and manages to convey a sense of joy at getting closer to the source of their power. And she doesn’t treat the books as closed systems – networks of imagery and language that refer only to themselves – but as arguments for a way of looking at the world. She teases the author’s changing vision and its contradictions out of the books, and looks at it seriously for its value as a philosophy of life. You get the sense that she believes that how you read a book is a matter of genuine consequence. Her criticism – even her dance criticism, which I’ve read despite my complete lack of interest in dance – is consistently excellent, and her recently published collection of essaysis entirely worth reading.

As for Cather, I think she’s one of America's best writers – up there with Melville and Twain as a writer of imaginative prose. Until recently, I’d never realized just how much great writing she produced. Apparently she only allowed one of her stories, “Paul’s Case,” to be anthologized, but there are dozens of others, virtually unknown, that are just as great, and her essays in Not Under Forty, along with many of her reviews – which, by the way, show sparks of genius even when Cather was in her mid-20s – are all worth owning. The good people at the Library of America have put out a volume called Stories, Poems, and Other Writings,which has been a real education for me. I recommend it to everyone, along with Acocella’s book.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Liars and Saints, by Maile Meloy

Most serious modern novelists, having committed themselves to a marginal medium, feel the need to defend the virtues of prose against the film camera. So they tend to write books that show off what words can accomplish - with labyrinthine plots that could never be put on screen, for example, or long essayistic passages; baroque prose, language games, individualized 1st person voices - all ensuring that no one ever accuses them of writing glorified screenplays.

Which is fine and understandable, and some great work has been done – but there is also a self-consciousness about this attitude that robs readers of one of the primary pleasures of stories: escapism, immersion. Immersion itself seems, for many writers, something to be wary of, since it is one of the things that film can accomplish so easily, a lazy and dangerous pleasure.

So it’s good to remember sometimes that prose doesn’t need too hysterical a defense; its virtues can be apparent even in ordinary storytelling by a good writer. Here is a paragraph about a third of the way through Maile Meloy’s wonderful first novel, Liars and Saints. It is about a crumbling marriage. The husband, Henry, has run for a position in the California state legislature, won, and moved to the state capital. His wife Clarissa has been stuck in the house with their baby, Abby.
When Henry came home, with drafts of bills to read, she said that if they were going to make this marriage work, they couldn’t live apart. He was too busy and too tired to argue very long, so she went with him to Sacramento, and moved into the tiny apartment he kept there. She took Abby to watch the debates, and made friends with Henry’s colleagues, and met lobbyists in the halls. Henry accused her of flirting with them, but she was only talking about the bills – and if the lobbyists liked her, so what? It could be useful. They said she had good ideas. She thought about becoming a lobbyist, too; she might be good at the research and the persuasion. But on three different afternoons she wanted to listen to important hearings, so she left Abby playing on the lobby carpet, just outside the chambers, perfectly safe. And each time, someone found Abby crying in a marble hallway somewhere else, with a full cloth diaper, and took her to Henry in committee, and Henry came out of his committee to find Clarissa. The first time it happened he smiled and said, “I have a job, Clar, and it’s to stay in that meeting.” The second time he just said, “Diaper.” The third time he handed Abby over silently, with a dark look, and that was the end of Clarissa’s lobbying career. She moved back to Sebastopol, less happy than ever.
This is the story of several months in a paragraph. Films have tried jumps like this – think of Kane and his wife at the breakfast table, the marriage dissolving in three cuts – but these scenes inevitably come off as a sort of glib shorthand; we never really understand what happened.

Here, along with the three filmable scenes, we get Henry’s mood and the texture of Clarissa’s mind – “perfectly safe,” she thinks about the baby left in the hallway – along with some of Clarissa’s naiveté, written in just the words she would use herself: “she might be good at the research and the persuasion.” Still, obviously, a kind of shorthand – that’s what art is, after all – but for me much more satisfying. The marriage is inhabited, and the story is told with a naturalness that makes it clear that this is the only medium in which to tell it.

Much of Liars and Saints moves at this same pace, and with the same sense of ease. The novel manages to cover three generations and more than fifty years in 260 pages; I can't imagine it being successfully filmed, even with its tight and involved plot. But I was lost in it; I read the book in great gulps over three days, anxious to find out what happened, and only stopped occasionally to let out little shouts of admiration. (How did Meloy write something this good this young?) The book is the story of the Santerre family: Teddy and Yvette, the father and mother, their two daughters Margot and Clarissa, and their marriages and children. Over the course of the story, which treats the points of view of various characters in short chapters, Meloy writes convincingly as a WWII pilot (Teddy), an old French-Canadian woman (Lenore, Yvette’s mother), and a fidgety adolescent boy, along with several others.

The story moves at a breakneck pace – with pregnancies and incest and deaths – and covers so much time that the events don’t feel as unlikely and melodramatic as they otherwise might: wait long enough, after all, and something huge will happen to you. The book doesn’t feel formless or arbitrary, either – there is a sense that the writer has discovered the shape of the narrative while writing; certain connections suggested themselves and pushed the book where it needed to go.

The story's disturbing implications only become apparent slowly; Meloy rarely steps in and spells anything out. As things go increasingly haywire for all of the characters, one gets the sense that – for all of the decisions these people get to make – the actual control that they have over their lives is pretty minimal. Genetic inheritance, family decisions, the historical moment, their own compulsions, bequeathed to them from God knows where – one starts to feel the truth of just how compelled most actions are.

Even the simple fact that Yvette passes on her beauty to her two daughters – as Clarissa, in turn, passes it on to hers – entirely changes the course of all of their lives: they are constantly in the path of other people’s desires, and so many of the events in the book would not take place if someone’s face happened to be differently proportioned.

That’s a terrifying thought, isn’t it? And this sort of determinism tends to make for dark and not entirely satisfying books; people expect (quite reasonably) change and personal agency from characters. And Meloy gives us some near the end, and it doesn’t feel wholly implausible – after all, I hope some sort of growth is possible over the course of a long life.

But still, something feels off about the later parts of the book, although the galloping plot certainly maintains interest. Meloy introduces the rather annoying voice of a child struggling with religious concerns (the whole family is Catholic, which is significant throughout) and can no longer hold back the urge to lay some ideas on us: evil is inextricably tied to good in life, etc. There is also a confrontation between two characters that has been waiting to happen for half the novel and comes off as completely false. The whole last chapter is a bit of a life-goes-on shrug.

But enough complaints. It's been a long time since I read a new first novel that was this good. Everyone should go out and read it and feel happy that such good stories are still being written.

A last note: Meloy wrote a sort of sequel to this novel called A Family Daughter, where one of this book's characters, from a similar but not identical family, turns out to have written Liars and Saints. The novel is not quite a disaster – she is too good a writer for that – but it is a real step down in inspiration. I gave up about halfway through. I felt like Meloy was blowing on embers that had already burned themselves out quite brilliantly in this novel. And A Family Daughter ends up scrambling the world that Liars and Saints creates so memorably.

The book, along with her collection of stories, also showed how Meloy's interest in the ramifications of beauty - so well-handled in Liars and Saints - can become limiting. Throughout her work, she seems to be almost exclusively interested in lovely people and their various entanglements. She likes things to happen quickly and it's easier with good looking people, I suppose. Meloy's primary obsession as a writer is sexual desire and the mess it can make of things - a worthy theme, certainly - but I'll admit that, as I've read more of her work, I've gotten slightly jealous and then occasionally bored with how monotonously desirable all of her people are. Even her older characters were invariably once beautiful, so the only loneliness in her books is the kind people feel when they've done everything and haven't found what they were looking for - and this is certainly not the most common variety.

Anyway, I'm hoping the sequel was an aberration, because if Liars and Saints is representative of her talent - and if Meloy can broaden her interests to include some different sorts of people - I think she will be one of the great writers of this generation. I’m looking forward to her new book of stories, which is coming out in a month or so.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

An Interview with Tim Parks

An interview I did with Tim Parks for the literary magazine Redivider is online here. As I've written earlier, I think Parks is one of the really great living writers. (Judge Savage is my current favorite among his novels, and the Adultery collection is probably my favorite modern collection of essays.)

Anyway, it was an immense and slightly mortifying honor to get to correspond with him. The interview takes a little while to get going - mostly because of my stammering attempts to impress him with my questions - but eventually gets interesting. I hope everyone enjoys it. Here is a favorite exchange:

AA: You mentioned earlier that some of these inflated literary reputations might have to do with America’s economic power. How do you see these two things affecting each other?

TP: Akshay, you hardly need me to clarify that for you… Do you? It isn’t obvious?

AA: Not entirely. I can see how America’s economic power might help spread the English language, but why would it compel praise for so-so art from people in other countries?

TP: This is rather extraordinary to me. It seems such an obvious equation. The world, certainly my part of the world, looks to America and the Anglo-Saxon culture in general as a model of the future, a motor of new fashion, the new thing. This despite all the hostility to American foreign policy. Books that are best sellers or much admired in the US are more or less automatically translated in Europe and other countries, because offering insight into the culture that drives the world. A best seller in Serbia, or Norway, or Kenya simply does not draw this attention. A brilliant writer in Croatia might easily be completely ignored, unless some political aspect of his work intersects with international interest. And reputation travels. Nobody needs to “compel praise”. It takes an extremely independent mind to read an author who comes on a tidal wave of hype and assess the material for what it is. Most people really do accept celebrity for quality. They do not question it. Add to this that very few countries have a tradition of independent criticism and the picture is complete. In Italy education does not train kids to imagine the majority might be wrong. It’s bad taste to scorn something universally admired. It’s unpleasant. Newspapers and publishers are owned by the same companies and work together and a journalist simply doesn’t set about taking to pieces a book that has been highly praised elsewhere and for which a great deal of money has been paid. At most they might choose not to talk about them.

Note, it is not a question of spreading the English language. Hardly anyone is reading Delillo or Franzen in English here. They are simply automatic exports the way our cinemas are automatically filled with the top ten Hollywood film, dubbed. But this was ever the way with the dominant power in the world. The Roman empire at its height was not admiring works coming out of Carthage or Londinium, nor was the British empire at its height paying much attention to anything from elsewhere, while all the world was reading Byron… To imagine that the success of books really depends on a large number of independent critical minds arriving at a positive judgment is simply not to pay attention to what’s going on. Obviously, certain qualities are required, but once the tidal wave of received opinion has begun to roll, success is guaranteed.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Beggar Maid, by Alice Munro

There is a widespread consensus in North America that Alice Munro is among the best living writers in English. Jonathan Franzen’s impassioned and silly defense of her work came after Munro's last collection had already been on the bestseller list, and long after most readers I know had felt compelled to read at least some of her work.

I have read maybe twenty of her stories – most from the big Selected volume and the Hateship collection – and have consistently felt something strange. It is not dissatisfaction, exactly. I have always been very impressed and then, with one exception, have never felt the need to read any of the stories again. "That was good," I would think, and know that I was done with it. It’s been years since I cracked open the Selected Stories. There must be more good things in there, but I’m never in the mood.

The exception I mentioned is a story called The Beggar Maid. As soon as I finished it, I knew that one of these days I would need to read it again. I found out it was part of a collection of linked stories and decided to make an effort to read Munro seriously through an entire collection.

The collection is called The Beggar Maid in America, with the subtitle Stories of Flo and Rose; the Canadian edition, which appeared first, has a better and less misleading title, Who Do You Think You Are? I say misleading because the whole book is really about Rose. Her step-mother, Flo, is a minor character who disappears for most of the middle of the book, and none of the stories, in any case, really focus on her.

The plot is an old one, and its broad outlines are revealed early, since Munro loves skipping ahead. Rose is an imaginative and intelligent child growing up in a poor town with her father and step-mother, Flo. She manages to go to high school and then college on a scholarship. In the process, she rids herself of all the things that might mark her as a bumpkin – her accent, her habits of dress. She learns how to tell the ugly stories of growing up poor in a way that will amuse her middle-class friends.

In college she marries unwisely with the son of a rich family. After a number of rocky years, marked by infidelity and depression and fights, they divorce. The woman slowly finds her way and achieves a measure of fame as an actress. Her step-mother, old and alone now, eventually has to be put in an old age home. The Beggar Maid, which disturbed and impressed me so much, is the story of Rose and her husband’s courtship, and an encounter they have many years after they divorce.

In some ways, I wish I had just re-read that story. Its blank spots and mysteries were more interesting when left unfilled. The rest of this book only gave me the same feeling I’ve had with so much of Munro's other work – how intelligent, how perceptive – and then, again, the sensation that these stories had nothing left to tell me.

Reading this collection helped me locate what I think is unsatisfying about Munro's work. Her writing feels almost entirely like a product of her conscious knowledge. It is too figured out, too completely fathomed – the writer spells out every implication and leaves nothing for the reader’s imagination. I am sure Munro follows random paths and has bursts of inspiration while writing, but before she is done she mercilessly tracks down every plot development, every stray bit of emotion, and pins it wriggling to the page with a fine phrase. And when I finish the stories most of them feel so dead.

Here is a representative quote. This is after Rose has already become famous:
It was part of her job to go on local television chatting about these productions, trying to drum up interest, telling amusing stories about things that had happened during the tour. There was nothing shameful about any of this, but sometimes Rose was deeply, unaccountably ashamed. She did not let her confusion show. When she was talking in public she was frank and charming; she had a puzzled, diffident way of leading into her anecdotes, as if she were just now remembering, had not told them a hundred times already.
This is good writing. Munro has noticed something and gotten it just right. And in passage after passage she gets such things right. But I realized something after admiring so many bits of observation: I was never surprised by them. I never had to struggle to figure out what she was getting at. I immediately knew what she meant, because these are things that everyone has felt and noticed, although few of us can express them quite so well. Who hasn't told the same story a few too many times and felt a little fake? It is near universal; and Munro consistently expends her powers on capturing such universal experiences and emotions. Her main characters rarely feel like individuals living independent existences; they are vessels for identification, and gain their aliveness from the extent to which they are like us.

So you think yes, that’s just what it’s like to be spanked by your parents, or to wait for a lover’s phone call – or “Ah, well put!” – but this sense of recognition is, for me, one of the secondary pleasures of literature. What I look for - vaguely, because it is a large and nebulous thing - is the sense of a writer struggling to get at something that's just beyond the capacity of words, trying to dramatize some internal conflict that won't quite be soothed into manageable shape. With Munro everything feels shaped and managed; I have little freedom to look at the story in a way other than the one she has laid out for me. There are plenty of unresolved spots, but even these seem determined.

For example, there is a carefully placed ambiguity at the end of Simon’s Luck, where Rose finds out, years later, that a lover she had thought abandoned her had been sick and died of pancreatic cancer. Had Simon meant to see her again? Was he already dying when he knew her? Here is how Munro handles the moment. Rose is acting in a soap opera, and compares the moment she learned about Simon's death to what the viewers of the soap expect in a plotline:
People watching trusted that they would be protected from predictable disasters, also from those shifts of emphasis that throw the story line open to question, the disarrangements which demand new judgments and solutions, and throw the windows open on inappropriate unforgettable scenery.

Simon’s dying struck Rose as that kind of disarrangement. It was preposterous, it was unfair, that such a chunk of information should have been left out, and that Rose even at this late date could have thought herself the only person who could seriously lack power.
This is a skillful ending and it unites a lot of the story’s concerns (the last phrase echoes an earlier line). But notice how Munro is not willing to simply leave the mystery in the air; she needs to sum it up, to point out that life is often like this. And yes, it is. We find out things later that seem to throw whole periods of our life out of focus. Again, I know just what I'm supposed to think about what has happened.

To clarify, I am not looking for pointless mystification. This story would not be better if Munro left out the concluding passage. It wouldn't make sense without it; what she has already written demands such a passage, and the story wouldn’t generate implications simply because its obvious and quite satisfying conclusion has been left out. In her later stories, in fact, such passages are often omitted, but the stories never open out because of it, because Munro is fundamentally a clinical writer. She uses scenes to diagnose people, and her characters rarely have much life outside of the implied diagnosis. There is no tale to trust outside of the teller.

One of the marks of this style of writing is that the big scenes in a story rarely happen between people. They happen when the main character is isolated in some way, realizing things. The confrontations, the unpredictable conversations, the general messiness of interaction between fully engaged people - these are consistently skipped over or quickly summarized. So there is never enough reality pushing up against the explanations. In this book, for example, we miss the details of Rose's divorce, her rise to fame, and most other things that might set her apart as an individual; what is left is the beautifully realized passages of common experience.

There is a passage from Milosz's The Captive Mind that I remembered while I was reading this book: "It is sometimes better to stammer from an excess of emotion than to speak in well-turned phrases. The inner voice that stops us when we might say too much is wise." This stammer is missing from Munro. She knows a great deal, and she knows it too well to be a really interesting writer for me, although she is certainly a good one.

The only place where I have heard this stammer from her – this reaching after some complicated and unmanageable truth – is in the title story from this collection. It is still the closest thing to a great story that I have read by her, and it contains all the hard scenes that I feel like she tends to skip. You can find it in her Selected Stories too, and I think everyone should read it. Her prose is much less smooth in The Beggar Maid; the narrative voice seems to keep correcting itself, wiping out its own assertions. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to feel and I don’t think the writer does either. It has the undertow of confusion that is one of the things that keeps a story alive. I wish Munro would allow herself to feel it a little more often.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Little Virtues, by Natalia Ginzburg

Virginia Woolf said something interesting once about marriage. I can’t track down the quote, unfortunately, but approximately it was that the ordinary days of any long relationship were like plain beads being put on a string, one after another, and then – at a moment when we’re beginning to get impatient, or perhaps after we’ve been impatient for some time – something magical is slipped on the thread, some invaluable, unexpected stone that would be much less beautiful if it were not set off by the beads that came before and the ones that will follow.

This idea is pleasing, but I don’t think it sits comfortably with most people today. Intensity is a more easily celebrated goal: feeling things as strongly as possible for as much of one’s life as possible, diamond after diamond on the string. We could easily be falling in love today – or visiting another country, fighting our old limits, and then sinking ourselves in some strange and exquisite pleasure. Or all at once! - the more intense the better.

I’m not sure which one I believe – neither, entirely – but I know that very few modern writers apply Woolf's advice to their books. The goal is to dazzle, line by line and page by page, because otherwise the reader – the extraordinarily beautiful creature who has agreed, for some reason, to go on a blind date with us – will get bored and leave. It is the rare writer who considers that the reader’s boredom might actually be a valuable tool in her arsenal. Not cranky and impatient boredom, of course, which we experience when a person’s forced liveliness fails to enchant, but the gentle, lazy variety. This kind of receptive boredom is a valuable state for a writer, because the most profound and surprising truths can be slipped under the table of the reader’s fully engaged consciousness.

One of the marks of Natalia Ginzburg's originality, I think, is her use of the constructive possibilities of boredom. In several of her best essays, I wondered in the middle why I was bothering to read this stuff at all, and only continued because Ginzburg's plain, conversational style kept pulling me through sentence after sentence, until, usually near the end of the piece, she would slip on that magical stone that transformed everything that came before.

The essay that first captured me was He and I, included in Philip Lopate’s wonderful anthology of the personal essay. It is about Ginzburg’s long marriage. Here are the first few paragraphs:
He always feels hot, I always feel cold. In the summer when it is really hot he does nothing but complain about how hot he feels. He is irritated if he sees me put a jumper on the evening.

He speaks several languages well; I do not speak any well. He manages – in his own way – to speak even the languages that he doesn’t know.
This is already getting a little annoying. I skipped this essay in the anthology several times because it felt like one of those narcissistic relationship features in the lifestyle section of the newspaper. But as the essay continues, it becomes apparent that Ginzburg is writing out of a belief not in her extraordinariness but her complete ordinariness - the opposite of narcissism. She feels quite sincerely that she is much like other people (several of her essays are written in the first person plural) and is comfortable using her own life to get at some general truths. And so the essay continues, alternating between her husband’s attributes and her own:
There are certain restaurants in England where the waiter goes through a little ritual: he pours some wine into a glass so that the customer can test whether he likes it or not. He used to hate this ritual and always prevented the waiter from carrying it out by taking the bottle from him. I used to argue with him about this and say that you should let people carry out their prescribed tasks.
This is mildly interesting and it makes you think about how different people are, but it isn't exactly scintillating. I kept reading with half-focus, a little bored, and when I had to do something else, I marked the page and set the anthology aside. I could easily have never picked up the essay again. Which shows what a dangerous strategy this exploitation of ordinariness can be for a writer. Good filmmakers – who have always known how to use boredom, just think of Tarkovsky or Ray or Ozu – only need us to stay in our chairs and keep our eyes open. But writers can't rely on inertia. Luckily, Ginzburg’s pieces are short; I saw the book a few days later and decided that I might as well finish the essay.

He and I continues in list form, with all the accumulated knowledge and schisms of a long relationship: the couple’s different approaches to cleanliness, and shopping, and how they fight. And then, near the end, Ginzburg mentions the first time they met and walked along the Via Nazionale, many years before they were together as a couple. Then there are a few more details about how her husband dressed differently then than when she came across him again. And the essay ends with this paragraph:
If I remind him of that walk along the Via Nazionale he says he remembers it, but I know he is lying and that he remembers nothing; and I sometimes ask myself if it was us, these two people, almost twenty years ago on the Via Nazionale; two people who conversed so politely, so urbanely, as the sun was setting; who chatted a little about everything perhaps and about nothing; two friends talking, two young intellectuals out for a walk; so young, so educated, so uninvolved, so ready to judge one another with kind impartiality; so ready to say goodbye to one another for ever, as the sun set, at the corner of the street.
This was magical for me when I read it – "so ready to say goodbye to one another for ever" – and I knew that it could not have had the same effect if not for all of those mundane details that I had half-sleepwalked through earlier in the essay. And then, in those last few lines, a rush of illumination, achieved in a way that would have been impossible through more direct means.

Illumination about what, exactly? It’ll sound hackneyed as soon as it’s written out – the great mystery, the strangeness of life! – which is why writers have to find other ways to get at it.

Impressed, I picked up The Little Virtues, a collection of Ginzburg’s essays translated from the Italian, including He and I. It's a slim collection, just over a hundred pages. When I began, I was convinced that I’d found a new favorite writer. Winter in the Abruzzi is a masterpiece; like He and I, it is a simple narrative of family life, entirely transformed by its last few paragraphs. And I really liked Portrait of a Friend, about Cesare Pavese.

And then my enthusiasm started to tail off. There are three essays about life in England with a few extraordinary passages, but full of untenable, abstract generalizations – about the obscure sadness of England, its tasteless cuisine, and various other gripes that sound like the laments of an Italian in an unfamiliar country and not the unassailable truths that Ginzburg seems to think they are.

This trend continues in the essays about life in Italy after the Second World War. At a certain point, I stopped being able to follow what Ginzburg was talking about. Here, for example, is a quote from Silence, which she considers a vice that “poisons our epoch”:
We have been advised to defend ourselves from despair with egotism. But egotism has never solved despair. And we are too used to calling our soul’s vices illnesses, to putting up with them and to letting them rule our lives, or to soothing them with sweet syrups in order to cure them as if they were illnesses. Silence must be faced and judged from a moral standpoint. It is not given to us to choose whether we are happy or unhappy. But we must choose not to be demonically unhappy.
This is simply too vague to be satisfying for me. And the less I understand an author, the more the use of “we” feels like an imposition. Maybe the audience of Ginzburg’s time knew exactly what she was talking about – in another essay, she directly addresses the survivors of Fascism in Italy – but I think a writer needs to be less insular to survive her age.

Ginzburg is at her best when she has a concrete subject to work with – her own life, or her friend’s life – instead of abstract ideas. But she is too good and careful a writer not to have at least one interesting thing to say in any piece she bothered to write and publish. The Little Virtues, for example, the title essay, is a wonderfully wise and thought-provoking set of maxims on how to raise children, going very much against the modern grain. And even though Ginzburg only duplicated, for me, the beauty of He and I in a single essay, I still think the book is entirely worth reading. Even a weaker essay like Human Relationships can contain a passage like this one, worth remembering for a long time (Ginzburg is talking about the moment when we know we are truly adults):
In that brief moment we found a point of equilibrium for our wavering life: and it seemed to us that we could always rediscover that secret moment and find there the words for our vocation, the words for our neighbour; that we could look at our neighbour with a gaze that would always be just and free, not the timid or contemptuous gaze of someone who whenever he is with his neighbour always asks himself if he is his master or his servant. All our life we have only known how to be masters and servants: but in that secret moment of ours, in our moment of perfect equilibrium, we have realized that there is no real authority or servitude on the earth. And so it is that now as we turn to that secret moment we look at others to see whether they have lived through an identical moment, or whether they are still far away from it; it is this that we have to know. It is the highest moment in the life of a human being, and it is necessary that we stand with others whose eyes are fixed on the highest moment of their destiny.