Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Eustace Diamonds

Like many readers, I love Victorian novels in part for their sprawling capaciousness. Needing to fill out each monthly number drove Victorian novelists to layer plot twists and characters in a way that contemporary novelists have no real pressure to do. (In fact, I recently figured out why Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children (2006) left me unsatisfied: it was Victorian in ambition but nearly 300 pages short of Victorian in length, and that absence was evident in the way that crucial facets of central characters felt sketched rather then fully imagined, let alone fully drawn.) Anthony Trollope was not much for plotting--Dickens, whom he criticized for his melodrama, could have plotted circles around him. But he was such a professional (committing himself to writing 250 words every hour he was at his desk) and such a perceptive observer of human nature that the heft of his novels usually goes unnoticed, filled as they are with detailed explications of interesting characters. The Trollope novels I've read feel less like treks through a plot, from a start to an obvious finish, than they do visits with some interesting people and their society, to be begun at any point and to be ended at the first convenient marriage; that they come up to the length of a typical three-decker Victorian novel seems incidental.

In The Eustace Diamonds (1873), however, Trollope fails to hide the padding. The perils of serial publication make themselves known, as the plot is repeatedly summarized and conversations, if not exactly repeated, are at least echoed. Midway through the book, Trollope, who rode to hounds a couple of times each week, lets his love of hunting love get the better of him in an extended scene of a hunt, one that has none of the drama of the hunt in Phineas Finn (1869). In addition, at that point in the novel he introduces several new characters who, while individually at least somewhat interesting, as a group slow the novel and draw attention away from its central characters.

Despite that, The Eustace Diamonds is worth the occasional slog, offering many typical Trollopian pleasures. His authorial statements about human nature, though never so aphoristic or philosophical as George Eliot's, are as usual confident and convincing. Here, for example, he shows us Lizzie Eustace, the perpetual dissembler at the center of the book's events, exploding with frustration:
"And is there to be no punishment?" she asked, with that strong indignation at injustice which the unjust always feel when they are injured.
Then there's his usual facility with the minutiae of character, as in this gently ironic description of a marriage proposal offered by the remarkably unremarkable Lord Fawn:
He was now standing upright before her, with the fingers of his right hand touching his left breast, and there was something almost of dignity in his gesture and demeanor.
That "almost" is nearly worthy of Waugh, who also came to mind (along with Ivy Compton-Burnett) when I read this batch of conversation between a young governess, about to be married, and the crotchety old lady whose companion she's to be until the wedding:
"Dear me;--sent you up in the carriage, has he? Why shouldn't you have come by the railway?"

"Lady Fawn thought the carriage best. She is so very kind."

"It's what I call twaddle, you know. I hope you ain't afraid of going in a cab."

"Not in the least, Lady Linlithgow."

"You can't have the carriage to go about here. Indeed, I never have a pair of horses till after Christmas. I hope you know that I'm as poor as Job."

"I didn't know."

"I am, then. You'll get nothing beyond wholesome food with me. And I"m not sure it is wholesome always. The butchers are scoundrels, and the bakers are worse. What used you to do at Lady Fawn's?"

"I still did lessons with the two youngest girls."

"You won't have any lessons to do here, unless you do 'em with me. You had a salary there?"

"Oh, yes."

"Fifty pounds a year, I supose."

"I had eighty."

"Had you, indeed; eighty pounds;--and a coach to ride in!"

"I had a great deal more than that, Lady Linlithgow."

"How do you mean?"

"I had downright love and affection. They were just so many dear friends. I don't suppose any governess was ever so treated before. It was just like being at home. The more I laughed, the better everyone liked it."

"You won't find anything to laugh at here; at least, I don't. If you want to laugh, you can laugh upstairs, or down in the parlor."

Most of the drama of the novel is precipitated by characters feeling forced by circumstance to make impossible choices: marry for love or marry for money; break an engagement one knows to be wrong, or marry, and keep the approval of society while losing one's conscience. One of the book's relatively minor characters, the young Lucinda Roanoke, throws those dilemmas into stark, even shocking relief, crystallizing the themes of the novel in her horror at the concept of her impending marriage. She speaks frankly, cruelly, and with a strain of deep, angry fatalism, refusing to pretend that the marriage is anything but forced. She hates her fiance--hates the very idea of marriage--and her disgust after their first embrace is unexpectedly blunt:
When she was alone she stood before her glass looking at herself, and then she burst into tears. Never before had she been thus polluted. The embrace had disgusted her. It made her odious to herself.
Yet she marches onward towards the fateful day, unable to see a way out.

George Eliot, in The Mill on the Floss (1860), refused to allow a compromise with society once she'd put her heroine into a situation where there could be no right choice; instead, she brought on an apocalyptic flood. Thomas Hardy, too, who was just launching his career at the time of The Eustace Diamonds, would time and again reach for the tragic and violent in that sort of situation. In the story of Lucinda Roanoke there are hints that Trollope may yet surprise us with a turn in that direction. The night before the wedding, Lucinda's grasping, overbearing aunt has a moment of worry as she sees her to her bedroom:
An indistinct, incompleted idea of some possible tragedy had flitted across the mind of the poor woman, causing her to shake and tremble, forbidding her, weary as she was, to lie down.
Could Miss Roanoke's story possibly end with a suicide? Trollope, it turns out, is not willing to go that far. Though he does not back down from his portrayal of the cruelty of her position--the marriage is called off, but Miss Roanoke remains in some sense permanently damaged--he allows it to fade into the background, as his primary characters meanwhile do find themselves able to make some accommodation, however flawed, to the demands of society.

But even as Lucinda's aunt waited outside her door, we knew that Trollope would not choose the tragic. It is not his form. He will criticize, satirize, lay out our failings for us to see--but if we are obstinate he will not force us to acknowledge those failings by foreclosing the possibility of individual happiness. I can imagine Trollope recoiling from the relentless gloom of Jude the Obscure, for he always remains conscious that his role is at least as much that of entertainer as of commentator. A novel, he wrote in his posthumously published Autobiography,
should give a picture of common life enlivened by humour and sweetened by pathos.
If that creed led him to turn away from the darkness and fatalism that would fuel a writer such as Hardy--and would be part of the reason his critical standing fell after his death and remained low for decades--it still left him a broad palette on which to present to us characters and situations that, more than a century later, still teem with life and insight.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Prince and the encounter with art

I realized about halfway through Michaelangelo Matos's Sign 'o' the Times that it wasn't quite for me. I am, after all, a Prince fan, not a PRINCE FAN. Don't get me wrong: I love Prince. The purchase of the book followed hot on the heels of a stretch of about three weeks where I didn't really listen to anything but Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Sly Stone. But I don't own Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. I don't have the special edition three-disc Crystal Ball. I have never decoupaged a coffee table with pictures of Prince, as a girl I knew in college did. Sure, there's always a risk that I could wake up one day and find that the dozen or so Prince albums I have suddenly become thirty--Prince is, after all, his own gateway drug--but for now I'm not quite there.

Matos's book, though not uncritical, is ultimately for the full-blown Prince worshipper. For the rest of us, the blizzard of details about discarded plans for the album--and which later Prince album each leftover ended up on--gets to be a bit much. But if you quickly flip past that part (like skipping the bits about whaling in Moby-Dick, for you odd people out there who hate that book), Sign 'o' the Times does provide rewards. Some are simple throwaway lines:
All of which ignores the real question behind "U Got the Look": What the hell is Sheena Easton doing here, and why does she sound so good?
Or this one, which comes in the course of a complaint about the New Power Generation, Prince's band on Diamonds and Pearls (about which I disagree with Matos--I like the album, despite a couple of really bad tracks):
Tony M, the group's rapper, sounded like something Prince won at an arcade.

Far more interesting, though, is Matos's characterization of his first encounter with Sign 'o' the Times as a middle school student in 1987:
It's starting to occur to me that my long-faked cosmopolitanism is doing me no good with this new album. I can pretend I know more than the people in my classes because I have a firmer grasp on what great music, great art is (because that's what incipient snobs do), but I really haven't encountered this sort of thing before. It's easy to assimilate the Beatles' experiments because they're twenty years old and have been celebrated to death, explained until (you'd think) the life has been drained from them. The miracle there is that they really haven't been--that life is still there for the finding if you want to look closely enough. Sign, though--Sign is strange. And beguiling. Which are qualities that as an incipient snob I always pretend to like but am actually flustered by when I encounter them.
That experience will surely ring true for those of us who remember the hard work of imitation and exploration that went into our first conscious forming of tastes--and of ourselves as people who would make ourselves stand out from the mass of teenagers by those very tastes.

For those of us who consider art to be an important part of our lives, that fight against the toxic mixture of complacency about received opinions and posturing about our own continues even into adulthood, requiring constant alertness--and the repetition to ourselves of some perennial questions: Am I making myself open to this work of art? Am I truly seeing it, or am I just seeing what I expect to see? Am I bothered because it's no good, or am I bothered because it's not what I was expecting? And the only real response, as Matos notes, is to keep looking:
So naturally, I keep playing the thing. And as I do, I keep adjusting.
Keep looking, keep reading, keep learning, keep adjusting. If I can manage to do that into old age, I'll be happy.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Welcome, misguided stranger!

According to Google Analytics, back on September 16th someone reached this blog by searching for "Luna Lovegood naked."

Far more surprising: after reaching the site and, presumably, noting that it wasn't exactly what he or she had in mind, the horny Harry Potter fan visited a couple of other pages in the blog and stuck around for nearly six minutes!

Adding another level of entertainment to all this is the realization that--because the searchable Internet comes closer to speaking reality into being than anything since Genesis--the two times that "Luna Lovegood naked" has actually appeared in this post make the odds of lost, lustful souls being misdirected here in the future significantly higher.

So, prurient pilgrim, if you've reached this post in error you should know up front that there are no photos of the endearingly odd Ms. Lovegood to be found at I've Been Reading Lately. There are, however, a couple of posts about Harry Potter here, a post about depictions of sex in literature here, and even a bit of nudity--of a history painting sort--in one of the images accompanying this post.

Enjoy--if, that is, you're of age. If not, shouldn't you be reading The Prydain Chronicles or Harriet the Spy rather than doing Google searches for smutty pictures?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"A profound and happy experience of love." Well, maybe not so much.

Following last week's post about Dostoevsky and adultery, to which this post will serve as a sort of haphazard addendum, I happened across the following passage in the 6 September 2007 issue of the London Review of Books, in a review by Stefan Collini of Peter Stanford's C. Day-Lewis: A Life (2007):
The novelist Rosamond Lehmann reviewed Poems in Wartime in the New Statesman: Day-Lewis, she proclaimed, was a "writer with a profound and happy experience of love." Day-Lewis responded to the review by inviting her to dinner, as one would.
You will not, I imagine, be surprised to learn that an affair followed the dinner nearly as quickly as dessert. I've pointed out before (somewhat facetiously and in relation to Thomas Hardy) that critics should always remember that their words can have unexpected effects on authors; in this case I can't help but wonder whether Lehmann might at some level have actually imagined her lines generating exactly the response they did--though I realize that's probably being unfair.

The affair continued, quite publicly, for years, ending when Day-Lewis fell for another woman, whom he would eventually marry. Text messaging not having been invented at the time, he ended the relationship with Lehmann by letter; one assumes that he when he left his long-suffering wife at the same time, he was at least forced to pay her the courtesy of telling her in person. (Long-suffering must be one of those adjectives that regularly sends writers of literary biography to their thesauruses--but how else can one properly describe the legion of devoted, disrespected spouses left in literature's wake?)

Surely Day-Lewis at least felt a bit guilty about his amorous indecisiveness, unlike the master of that sort of adventure, Casanova. His History of My Life--by turns charming and repellent, amusing and grotesque, yet extremely difficult to put down--may be the least repentant, least apologetic work I have ever read. If, like the Dostoevsky character I wrote about the other day, Casanova were to come face-to-face with a man whose wife he'd slept with, he surely wouldn't wait around to find out if the man knew about the affair. He'd instead start edging toward the door--through which, for a man of his boundless luck and insatiable desire, there would surely be other women to meet, preferably ones with less-attentive husbands. Even a wedding, after all, leaves him only thinking about the availability of the bride:
I left full of love, but without any plan, since I thought the beginning of a marriage presented too many difficulties.
Too many difficulties, that is, for an instant conquest; instead, he's forced to commit nearly a month to the task before he meets with success.

Which leads me to Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (1915) (which Ford wanted to title The Saddest Story after its justifiably famous opening line, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard.") Written with a precision and restraint that brings to mind Ford's friend and mentor Joseph Conrad, it is an at times excruciating tale of self-deception and bad faith in marriage. In a 1927 Introduction to the novel, Ford recounts the following:
On one occasion I met the adjutant of my regiment just come off leave and looking extremely sick. I said: "Great heavens, man, what is the matter with you?" He replied: "Well, the day before yesterday I got engaged to be married and today I have been reading The Good Soldier."
Like Alfred Appel's story of having a bunkmate in the Army ask to read that smutty book Lolita, then toss it back to Appel after a few lines with a disgusted, "Dammit! That's literature!", Ford's story sounds a tad too good to be true. But Ford is long gone, and I hate to stand in the way of a good story, so I won't quibble.

The military angle allows me to bring this rambling post to a close by returning to Anthony Powell, and one of his least sympathetic characters, Lieutenant Odo Stevens. Jenkins meets Stevens in the early days of his Army service and describes him like this:
Narcissistic, Stevens was at the same time--if the distinction can be made--not narrowly egotistical. He was interested in everything round him, even though everything must eventually lead back to himself.
But while Odo Stevens is every bit as odious as the sound of his name would suggest, his crass self-regard allows him to get off one of the most unforgettable lines in all of A Dance to the Music of Time. While giving Jenkins a lift back to the base from a hectic weekend at the country house where Jenkins's wife and her family are staying, Stevens offhandedly comments,
Not feeling like going on the square tomorrow, are you? Still, it was the hell of a good weekend's leave. I had one of the local girls under a hedge.

And that, surely, is enough of that for today.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

"They were long, large eyes--but very dangerous."

After a few months of actively staying away, I've succumbed once again to the seductions of Anthony Trollope, continuing with the next novel in the Palliser sequence, The Eustace Diamonds (1873). I'm not that far into it--in fact, after thirty-six pages, I'm only just now getting past Trollope's introduction of the dramatis personae. At the end of the fourth chapter, which was the end of the first serial installment of the book (in the July 1871 issue of the Fortnightly Review), Trollope himself laments the dilated nature of his introductions:
Dramatists, when they write their plays, have a delightful privilege of prefixing a list of their personages;--and the dramatists of old used to tell us who was in love with whom, and what were the blood relationships of all the persons. In such a narrative as this, any proceeding of that kind would be unusual--and therefore the poor narrator has been driven to expend his four first chapters in the mere task of introducing his characters. He regrets the length of these introductions, and will now begin at once the action of his story.

I could imagine coming to the end of that first installment in the Fortnightly Review and being frustrated that you got so little action and drama for your shilling. We, however, have the advantage of holding the whole book in front of us, so we can instead revel in Trollope's extended descriptions, which are enjoyable for their careful, balanced prose and their unapologetic declarativeness. Trollope is not one for vagueness or beating around the bush--he leaves little to inference. Instead, he tells you, straight-out, what his characters are like; that established, the interest comes in figuring out how these fully imagined--and fully laid out--characters will affect each other, how they will deal with new or unexpected situations.

It's the antithesis of the show-don't-tell ethos of contemporary writing instruction, and it's easy to imagine it being a turgid mess in the hands of a lesser writer. But Trollope's prose is unfailingly engaging, even charming, and when used to convey his nuanced understanding of how society constrains, alters, and forms character, it makes for compelling reading. Here, for example, is how he opens the novel:
It was admitted by all her friends, and also by her enemies--who were in truth the more numerous and active body of the two--that Lizzie Greystock had done very well with herself. We will tell the story of Lizzie Greystock from the beginning, but we will not dwell over it at great length, as we might do if we loved her.
Lizzie is certainly not lovable, being frequently compared, even by Trollope himself, to the ruthless gold-digger Becky Sharp in Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Trollope's early description of her delivers some wonderfully Victorian physiognomical analysis of her deeply flawed character:
Her chin was perfect in its round, not over long--as is the case with so many such faces in which such length utterly spoils the symmetry of the countenance. But it lacked a dimple, and therefore lacked feminine tenderness.
Who knew a dimple was the minimum requirement for feminine tenderness? Writers of personal ads may have to come up with a new acronym. But the absence of a dimple isn't the only clue to Lizzie's character:
How few there are among women, few perhaps also among men, who know that the sweetest, softest, tenderest, truest eyes which a woman can carry in her head are green in colour! Lizzie's eyes were not tender--neither were they true.

Though this photo doesn't give any clue, I do hope that Mrs. Trollope had green eyes--or, failing that, that she was better at sussing out the differences between Trollope's narrative voice and his actual self than I am.

{Digression: now that I've dug up that photo of Rose Trollope, I can't resist sharing a photo of Anthony as well, in case you've never seen him in his full, bearded glory.

End digression.}

Lizzie of course isn't the only character on whom Trollope lavishes his descriptive powers. His presentation of her aunt, Lady Linlithgow, serves as a nice reminder of one of the pleasant differences between history and literature. If history at its best often brings us up short by reminding us of just how different the world and its people were in the past, one of literature's most striking powers is to do the opposite, revealing unexpected continuities and personality types and traits that have remained surprisingly resilient, even common, over time. The category of person to which Trollope assigns Lady Linlithgow will, I think, be familiar to everyone:
Lady Linlithgow, too, though very strong, was old. She was slow, or perhaps it might more properly be said, she was stately in her movements. She was one of those old women who are undoubtedly old women--who in the remembrance of younger people seem always to have been old women--but on whom old age appears to have no debilitating effects. If the hand of Lady Linlithgow ever trembled, it trembled from anger; if her foot ever faltered, it faltered for effect.
Trollope, however, always has more words at his disposal, and he likes to use those words to complicate the character he is presenting:
In her way Lady Linlithgow was a very powerful human being. She knew nothing of fear, nothing of charity, nothing of mercy, and nothing of the softness of love. She had no imagination. She was worldly, covetous, and not unfrequently cruel. But she meant to be true and honest, though she often failed in her meaning;--and she had an idea of her duty in life. She was not self-indulgent. She was as hard as an oak post--but then she was also as trustworthy. No human being liked her;--but she had the good word of a great many human beings.
That's a fairly typical description for Trollope. He is forever turning his characters around and around to point out facets that we might not otherwise have seen. For me, that alone goes a long way toward justifying his tell-don't-show approach, however much he may pretend to regret it.

But enough writing--there's nearly 700 more pages to read and a lovely Sunday stretching before me!

Friday, September 21, 2007

I begin by telling you straight out that you are a worthless scoundrel!

The other day, I mentioned that at the Brooklyn Book Festival I picked up some novellas published by Melville House. One of them was Dostoevsky's The Eternal Husband (1870), which the flap copy describes thus:
This remarkably edgy and suspenseful tale shows that, despite being better known for his voluminous and sprawling novels, Fyodor Dostoevsky was a master of the more tightly focused form of the novella.

The Eternal Husband may, in fact, constitute his most classically shaped composition, with his most devilish plot: a man answers a late-night knock on the door to find himself in a tense and puzzling confrontation with the husband of a former lover--but it isn't clear if the husband knows about the affair. What follows is one of the most beautiful and piercing considerations ever written about the qualities of love: a dazzling psychological duel between the two men over knowledge they may or may not share, bringing them to a shattering conclusion.
They write good copy, those Melville House marketing people.

The copy got me to buy the book, and in addition, before I'd had a chance to start reading, it got me thinking about how other favorite authors would have handled this plot. Graham Greene came immediately to mind. A Greene protagonist, confronted with the husband of a woman he's been sleeping with, would surely sit, his inherent guilt confirmed, and wait stolidly for the man to take a well-deserved swing at him. But if there turned out to be no blow--if the husband turned out to be ignorant after all--the Greene character would not take this close call as a sign that he should desist; rather, he would pursue the affair with ever more flagrant abandon, begging to be exposed and appropriately punished.

I imagine that a Joseph Conrad hero's reaction would be fairly similar, but still distinct. Conrad's character would wait for the revelation that will confirm the knowledge he already carries of his failure. He knows he is guilty, but the guilt is not a religious guilt; rather, it is a personal one. He has failed to live up to his own deeply felt code. His only solace now is silence: he will endure any punishment (and consider it in some sense just) rather than confirm the husband's statements--and thereby betray the only confidence he has left, that of the wife. (Think "Long Black Veil.")

About Anthony Powell, on the other hand, we don't have to speculate: in The Kindly Ones, he presents us with a very similar situation, as Nick Jenkins finds himself having drinks with Bob Duport, ex-husband of Jean Templer, with whom Jenkins had brief, passionate affair at a time when she and Duport were vaguely separated. Duport is an impressively unpleasant man (Hilary Spurling, in her guide to A Dance to the Music of Time, Invitation to the Dance, calls him "aggressive and contradictuous."), but Jenkins rightly understands that
[W]hat I had done had made him, in some small degree, part of my own life. I was bound to him throughout eternity. Moreover, I was, for the same reason, in no position to be censorious. I had undermined my own critical standing.
What follows is one of the few moments in the novel sequence where Jenkins's own feelings come to the fore. So much of Dance consists of Jenkins telling the reader about the activities of others, which he has watched from the wings while remaining relatively aloof; the Jean Templer episode affects Jenkins powerfully when it happens, and its repercussions, echoing ever so slightly throughout Jenkins's life, reawaken that power each time they surface.

In this case, Powell uses Duport to, in a sense, teach Nick a lesson, remind him that even those aspects of life that we think we know best--those people whose very hearts we think we've mapped--are full of mystery and surprise, often of an unpleasant nature. In the course of rather dispassionately relating his troubles with Jean over the years, Duport off-handedly reveals an affair that had been totally unknown to Jenkins, one that throws his own time with her into a new, stingingly cold light. It's a marvelously complicated scene, with all the power and surprise of real-life emotional reverses, and Nick Jenkins emerges from it as a more nuanced and interesting character--not just for the reader, but for himself as well.

All this is by way of thinking about how Dostoevsky would handle such a situation--and as I thought about it, I realized that I had no idea. Oh, I had some general guesses: Dostoevsky's characters tend to react to everything in some sort of overwrought fashion--getting angry, drunk, guilty, passionately loving, violent. But part of what fascinates me about Dostoevsky is that I never have any real idea, in specific, how his characters are going to act. They're so utterly foreign to me, so singular, that they seem denizens of a world that is solely Dostoevsky's, bearing little relation to my own--like pinballs behaving according to laws of a physics that is totally different from ours, though no less immutable. In my own life I know Graham Greene characters, Joseph Conrad characters, and Anthony Powell characters--but no one knows Dostoevsky characters, right? (If you do, you're living a more dramatic life than I do, certainly.) No one can actually live with that intensity; that singularity is part of what makes them teem with life. They're utterly unpredictable, yet their actions, however overblown, manage somehow to seem right, even inevitable.

In that regard, The Eternal Husband does not disappoint. The protagonist, Velchaninov, doesn't feel the slightest bit guilty about his position in relation to the husband, Pavel Pavlovitch--whom he characterizes as one of a type, "the eternal husband," a man who is destined to be a cuckold and who seeks out, unwittingly, a marriage in which he will be cuckolded (the very reason, again perhaps unwittingly, that the wife selects him)--yet he can't simply dismiss him, either. Instead, his Dostoveskian overwroughtness takes the form of obsession, a desire to know whether Pavel knows about the affair--and whether Pavel's young daughter, whom Pavel mostly disregards, might actually be Velchaninov's. That obsession also shades into paranoia, as Velchaninov has no idea what to make of Pavel Pavlovitch, who--in pure Dostoevsky fashion--is by turns lachrymose, manically exuberant, and vaguely accusing. His every statement of intent feels disingenuous--yet there is no way for Velchaninov to be sure, no way to know what Pavel wants from this renewed acquaintance. Unable to break with Pavel without knowing, Velchaninov finds himself in the role of advisor and friend--necessarily a false friend--accompanying him on an ill-fated courting expedition, all the while clueless about Pavel's knowledge and intentions. The tension is unremitting, and the resolution--surprisingly drawn-out and complicated--is frightening, oddly moving, and largely unexpected.

It's a reminder of why I return to Dostoevsky every year or two: even a second or third reading brings surprises and new insights. His vision of human life is almost wholly alien to me, but its intensity and honesty are undeniable and compelling. If Tolstoy makes us larger, more empathetic, more human, Dostoevsky, for all his vexed faith, reminds us of our smallness and failures--and yet at the same time of our unbowed determination. As Pavel says,
One drinks the cup of one's sorrow till one is drunk with it.
Tolstoy would remind us to consider, as we empty our cups, the cups that others must drink; thus, together, he and Dostoevsky become twin stars, inseparable and indispensable.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Last Novel

No time for real posting today, so I'll stick to a simple question: how does any blogger who reads David Markson's The Last Novel (2007) resist posting the whole damned thing?

Early in the novel, Markson defines it succinctly as
A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel.
--though that does nothing to answer inescapable questions about whether it really is a novel, because it consists almost entirely of page after page of two- or three-line notes from the lives of writers and artists, their syntax given a convoluted arrangement reminiscent of index entries.

But that larger question will have to wait until I have more time and thought available. For now, I'll just share some of the irresistible biographical nuggets that Markson provides, seemingly the fruit of a lifetime of magpie work in biography and literary history. The range of subjects is wide enough that any dedicated reader will learn something about his favorites, and several regular subjects of this blog make appearances. Thomas Hardy, for example:
Andrew Lang's indignation over a mild blasphemy in Tess of the D'Urbervilles.
A gentleman who turned Christian for half an hour, Hardy dismissed him as.

Then there's this guy:
So difficult and opaque it is, I am not certain what it is I print.
Said John Donne's very publisher about the first edition of his verse.

But I need to wrap this up and head off to the office, so I'll close with this one, which seems like a good thought with which to start one's day:
Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice.
Said Cyril Connolly.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Two of the people in this photo are celebrating their wedding anniversary.

If you surprise your wife on a Friday morning by announcing that you've spent four months secretly planning a trip to New York to celebrate your seventh wedding anniversary, and that you're leaving that night, it's even more fun, when she asks what you're going to be doing in New York, to be able to tell her, "We'll be going to International Pickle Day!"

We ate a lot of regular pickles, some pickled beans and radishes, some kimchi, some more pickles. And here, I suppose, is this post's tenuous connection to this blog's ostensible purpose: in reading the International Pickle Day materials, I learned two new terms for cucumbers: curvey describes a type of cucumber that is destined for pickling (56% of the nearly 3 billion grown annually in the United States), while slicer refers to a cucumber that is to be shipped to groceries and sold as is. I also learned the Dutch phrase in de pickel zitten, which means "to sit in the pickle"--the rough equivalent of our "to be in a pickle."

It was a great trip. We saw friends, had good food and drink, talked about books and music, heard stories of bad workplaces. Which leads me to think, once again, that there really isn't enough fiction about office life, relative to the amount of time and emotion we spend there. Though maybe Bartleby the Scrivener is enough?

Bartleby reminds me that there were of course books on the trip, too. We met our friend Bernice at the Brooklyn Book Festival, where I couldn't resist picking up some of the beautifully designed novellas published by Melville House. And my current Prince fixation led me to pick up a book on his album Sign 'o' the Times by my friend Maura's sometimes co-blogger Michaelangelo Matos, who won me over with this line:
The only music from 1987 to match it for sheer libido isn't an R&B record-it's Guns 'n' Roses' Appetite for Destruction, cock-rock metal with a disco rhythm section.
At the Book Festival, we also saw a panel featuring Ed from the Dizzies, along with Rob Sheffield and Chuck Klosterman--the last of whom came out with an unforgettable (if possible untrue?) line:
Even with something you absolutely love, if you think about it long enough, you can make it seem horrible.

Oh, and we wandered the Strand, where I picked up Mary Ann Caws's impressionistic, digressive volume on Proust in the Overlook Illustrated Lives series, from which I gleaned this anecdote:
At the moment when [Proust's brother] Robert was about to marry Marthe in the nearby church of St. Augustin, Proust, panicked as usual over the notion that he might be cold, stuffed his tuxedo with a great mass of thermal wadding, placed several mufflers around his neck, and three overcoats over the tux, and so attired, was too massive to get down the aisle and had to stand aside. "To each row in turn he announced in a loud voice that he had been ill for months, that he would be still more ill that evening, that it was not his fault."
Proust as Monty Python character--now that's a side of the man I would never have expected to see.

All in all, a lovely whirlwind trip. Now back home, and back to regularly scheduled blogging. And, you know, work and all that stuff, too.

Friday, September 14, 2007

"New York had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world."

From F. Scott Fitzgerald's "My Lost City," collected in The Crack-Up (1945)
"What news from New York?"
"Stocks go up. A baby murdered a gangster."
"Nothing more?"
"Nothing. Radios blare in the street."

No blogging for a few days, as we're off to New York for the weekend.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A pert wanton

{Edmund Gosse and his father, Philip}

Midway through Edmund Gosse's thoughtful, moving autobiography, Father and Son (1907), there's a moment that will amuse any lover of dictionaries. Young Edmund, who after the death of his mother is being raised under the stern, even stifling, hand of his deeply religious father, is describing the unexpected appearance in their relatively cloistered life of Miss Wilkes, an attractive young fellow member of their religious sect, the Plymouth Brethren. Edmund's father is by nature a solitary, unsociable sort--Edmund describes him as "a fortress that required to be stormed"--but Miss Wilkes manages to worm her way into his good graces and becomes a regular visitor to the house. Years later, Edmund is still uncertain whether she was aiming for anything more than friendship, though the circumstances and her determination would seem to indicate that she was, but he does recall overhearing the housekeeper telling the cook that, "quite as between you and me," Miss Wilkes was a "minx." Gosse, displaying the curiosity that makes his young self endearing despite his priggishness, writes:
I had the greatest curiosity about word, and as this was a new one, I looked it up in our large English Dictionary. But there the definition of the term was this:--"Minx: the female of a minnock; a pert wanton." I was as much in the dark as ever.
But it gets even better: as Michael Newton, editor of the Oxford World's Classics edition (to which he contributes a remarkably interesting Introduction), notes:
EG may be making this up. The edition of Nathan Bailey's An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721), that we know the Gosses owned, defines "minx" as "a proud Girl."
Once in a while, the uheralded grunt work done by patient literary scholars really pays off for us ordinary readers.

Gosse really is a fascinating figure--and not a bad one with which to follow a post about Ring Lardner, actually. In her Thomas Hardy, Claire Tomalin explains that he "had appointed himself as the fixer of the London literary world," the man who knew everyone--including Hardy, with whom he became close friends--and who "dedicated himself to living the literary life more seriously than anyone else has ever done," but without producing much himself beyond some unexceptional poetry. Evelyn Waugh, to whom Gosse was related, says of him in A Little Learning:
I held Gosse in disdain. His polished art of pleasing was not effectively exercised on children. I remember him once, when I was, I suppose, eight or nine, greeting me with: "And where do you carry those bare knees?"

I answered pertly, "They carry me wherever I want to go."

"Ah the confidence of youth! To be able to envisage an attainable destination!"

Newton describes him, in old age, as exactly the sort of figure the youthful Waugh would rail against:
That pitiful thing, the unsmiling public man. He was the official representative of letters; a tame author. . . . He had crucified poetry on the cross of respectability. No one believes a laureate will write a good poem, and Gosse was the laureate of belle lettres.
Yet with Father and Son, initially published anonymously, he surprised everyone. It is a remarkable, emotionally open picture of, as Gosse describes it, a conflict of temperaments, relating the growing estrangement between Edmund and his father--an estrangement propelled by Edmund's experience of a process that will be familiar to all readers of late-Victorian biography, the loss of faith. While Edmund writes the book, in a sense, against his father, it is, as Newton describes it, "a loving attack"--the very depths of emotion and analysis that he brings to the writing render his father at least as compelling a figure as Edmund himself.

And if that's not enough to tempt you into reading it, Gosse's vocabulary might--I learned a handful of great new words along the way. There's jobation, defined as "a lengthy and tedious rebuke." There's a French word, detraquee, defined as "someone unhinged, who's gone 'off the rails,' though without the usual suggestion of a drift into dissipation." Fuliginous, meaning "smoky or sooty," and a Latin term, quidnuncs, defined as "gossips or busybodies."

Add a pert wanton, and what more could a reader want?

"Ring made no enemies, because he was kind."

In introducing my Ring Lardner imitation the other day, though I apologized to Lardner's fans, I forgot to apologize to his ghost. But if F. Scott Fitzgerald is right about Lardner, with whom he was close friends for many years, I shouldn't be worried:
It is hard to understand but I don't think he really gave a damn about anything except his personal relations with a few people. A case in point was his attitude to those imitators who lifted everything except the shirt off his back--only Hemingway has been more thoroughly frisked--it worried the imitators more than it worried Ring. His attitude was that if they got stuck in the process he'd help them over any tough place.

I took those lines from Fitzgerald's obituary remembrance of Lardner, who died in 1933 at the age of forty-eight, which is included in The Crack-Up (1945), the Edmund Wilson-edited book of Fitzgerald odds and ends. The whole obituary is worth reading. Fitzgerald appraises his friend with a clear-eyed honesty that would seem cruel were it not rooted in a deep appreciation of Lardner's underlying talent:
So one is haunted not only by a sense of personal loss but by a conviction that Ring got less percentage of himself down on paper than any other American of the first flight.
Fitzgerald attributes Lardner's failure to his early years covering baseball:
A writer can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which these adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty-five. However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake had exactly the diameter of Frank Chance's diamond. . . . It was never that he was completely sold on athletic virtuosity as the be-all and end-all of problems; the trouble was that he could find nothing finer.
That attribution seems to reflect Fitzgerald's own preoccupation with youth--he already saw his best years fading behind him though he was only thirty-seven--at least as much as they reflect the reality of the difficulties facing Lardner. In fact, the whole obituary, with its lament of lost promise, of a genius fallen silent at a young age, is impossible to read without thinking that Fitzgerald is writing about himself, too, and maybe even realizes it.
He kept on recording but he no longer projected, and this accumulation, which he has taken with him to the grave, crippled his spirit in the latter years. . . . He had agreed with himself to speak only with a small portion of his mind.
Another writer whom that description brings to mind is J. D. Salinger--who names Lardner as one of Holden Caulfield's favorite writers in A Catcher in the Rye.

Despite the wasted talent, despite the sadness and frustration that Fitzgerald identifies, the impression one is left with after his words is of a man who was, as the lines I used for this post's headline indicate, kind and attentive, loyal to his friends if not to his talent:
The woes of many people haunted him--for example, the doctor's death sentence pronounced upon Tad, the cartoonist (who, in fact, nearly outlived Ring)--it was as if he believed he could and ought to do something about such things. . . . So he was inclined to turn his cosmic sense of responsibility into the channel of solving other people's problems--finding someone an introduction to a theatrical manager, placing a friend in a job, maneuvering a man into a golf club. The effort made was often out of proportion to the situation.
As for Lardner's wit, which survived his loss of faith in his writing, Fitzgerald demonstrates it nicely by reproducing a refreshingly odd telegram Lardner to sent him and Zelda:
Ultimately, though, Fitzgerald concludes in sadness--not so much because of the art Lardner might have written and didn't, but because he felt inadequate in his friendship:
At no time did I feel that I had known him enough, or that anyone knew him--it was not the feeling that there was more stuff in him and that it should come out, it was rather a qualitative difference, it was rather as though, due to some inadequacy in one's self, one had not penetrated to something unsolved, new and unsaid. That is why one wishes that Ring had written down a larger proportion of what was in his mind and heart. It would have saved him longer for us, and that in itself would be something. But I would like to know what it was, and now I will go on wishing--what did Ring want, how did he want things to be, how did he think things were?
From our perspective, nearly seventy-five years later, we can acknowledge Fitzgerald's personal lament while being a bit more forgiving about the work itself. People are still reading and enjoying You Know Me Al--as they're still reading The Great Gatsby--and that seems like an achievement to be proud of, regardless of what might have been.

{P.S. I was put in the mind to go back to Fitzgerald today by a nice post at Light Reading about the joys of flawed books. It's well worth checking out.}

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

An overall impression of grandeur

I admit up front that my having read A Dance to the Music of Time more times than I've read In Search of Lost Time is causing me to trace the line of influence in the wrong direction, but doesn't the description below of the Duc de Guermantes read like something right out of Anthony Powell?
Better informed than his wife about the nature of their ancestors, M. de Guermantes had a command of memories which gave his conversation the fine feel of an ancient mansion, lacking in real masterpieces but still full of authentic pictures, of middling interest and imposing, giving an overall impression of grandeur.

In that translation, by Mark Treharne, the sentence even has Powell's rhythm and structure, more so than the Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation, which renders the sentence thus:
Better informed than his wife as to what their ancestors had been, M. de Guermantes had at his command memories which gave to his conversation a fine air of an ancient mansion, lacking in real masterpieces but still full of pictures, authentic, indifferent, and majestic, which taken as a whole has an air of grandeur.
Having no French, I can't comment on the accuracy of either version, but the Powell tone in particular seems to arise from the replacement of the string of descriptive adjectives--"authentic, indifferent, and majestic"--with the descriptive clause, "of middling interest and imposing." The word "middling," meanwhile, seems both more effective than "indifferent" and more Powellian, reminding us as it does that much of the stuff of the world is mediocre--yet so often proves to be of some unexpected interest anyway.

Powell was never shy about acknowledging his debt to Proust. I'm pretty much just playing late-night reading games here, but now I begin to wonder if Treharne is a Powell fan?

And, more important, if we're going to steal Proust's line for Dance, to whom should we attach it? Sir Gavin Walpole-Wilson, maybe?

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Guermantes Way—via Clark and Addison

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Unexpectedly staying with the baseball theme from Saturday: if you find yourself at Wrigley Field for a game on a work day--and therefore without your usual seatmates--I recommend taking The Guermantes Way to read between innings. I go to a couple of dozen baseball games every year, and, as great art so often does, today The Guermantes Way helped me to experience the utterly familiar in a new way.

Nearly the whole second half of The Guermantes Way consists of the description of an evening at the salon of Madame de Guermantes, with whom Marcel has been fascinated to the point of obsession since childhood. Having finally, after much covert and overt effort, been granted entree to the hallowed precincts of the Guermantes salon, Marcel is disappointed--even astonished--to find it excruciatingly banal and superficial, a place of forced wit and petty social striving, where art has no value beyond its role as an easy indicator of sophistication.

For more than two hundred pages, Proust relates the conversation of Madame de Guermantes's batch of insecure nobles and society sycophants--a conversation that ought to be stultifying to the point of unreadability. But by presenting the evening from Marcel's perspective, at a remove yet tightly focused and deeply analytic, Proust reveals the pointless back-and-forth as a constant battle for position, almost a sporting event. With their every utterance the interlocutors attempt to stake out territory and establish credentials as thinkers, demonstrate their wit, or simply shore up their position as venerable nobility--all in an effort to worm their way into the good graces of their hostess. Nary a sincere word is uttered, and Marcel provides us with a fascinating and funny running gloss on it all. We end up simultaneously very glad that we're not there and very glad that Proust was.

It's yet another way that Proust wakes us up, makes us more alert to the stuff of life, whether it's the memory locked in a physical sensation, the secret lives led by people we thought we knew, or the usually unnoticed layers--pointless as they ultimately may be--underlying everyday conversation. The problem with reading that half of The Guermantes Way, however, is that for weeks afterwards, you're unable to overhear ordinary conversations in public without subjecting them to Marcel's skeptical analysis.

Wrigley Field proved no exception. By the end of the game, I felt as if I had overheard every tic and type of speech that Marcel discovered in the Guermantes salon. There were the statements designed to demonstrate the speaker's bona fides:
There's not a person alive who knows more about the Cubs of the '90s than I do.

I used to come here every day in the '80s.

There were the patently false statements offhandedly presented as truths:
Fonzie had three homers against the Sox in a game this summer.

Albert Pujols is good, but he's not as good as Ernie Banks.

A sacrifice is as good as a homer here.

That's Scott Rolen.

Diminutive nicknames were handed out with abandon: Fonzie, Rammy, D-Lee, and--least excusably--Rappy, for home plate umpire Ed Rapuano. Feeble attempts at wit were received as brilliant jests:
The Cardinals take it in their Pu-jols!

Go get some more HGH!

There was concern about changes in fashion:
Soriano's the only one out there who's got his socks up. He's the only one who looks like a ballplayer--all the rest of them look like slobs.

Think Carlos will wear his socks up for his next start? It worked last time.

Genealogy and pedigrees even came up for discussion:
You mean you didn't know that Todd Hundley's dad also played for the Cubs?

And, most Guermantes of all, it seemed to me--potential bon mots--
So Taguchi is so bad
--were first floated quietly, almost furtively, then, depending on the reception in the nearest seats, repeated at top volume for the enjoyment of all.

All of which led me to try to imagine Proust as my seatmate. No doubt he'd have been disappointed with the food and drink on offer, uniformly terrible as they were, and both the fashion choices and the pedigrees of the crowd certainly left much to be desired--while the gray and clammy weather would surely have elicited worries about his health. But it's hard to imagine a spectator in the right frame of mind finding the eavesdropping any less than choice.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Ring Lardner shows up at Brewers game

With all the necessary apologies to Ring Lardner fans: I couldn't help myself after reading this story about last night's Brewers-Reds game.
Friend Al,
Don't it always seem like when you make a mistake the manager is right there to bawl you out, but when he makes a mistake your the one out there on the field catching the boos? Well you wont believe it but last night thats what happened, only I didnt catch the boos, but only cause we were in Cincinati. But even if wed been home I think the rotten boobirds woulda been so confused they wouldnt know what to think. And it happened in the first inning, and all the other innings was worse, and I got to think its cause of that rotten Ned Yost's mistake; we just kinda give up.

We was in Cinncinati, and I come up to hit with one out and the bases empty. Arroyo's pitching for the Reds, that skinny longhaired goofball who kicks up that foot like he's gonna ballerina the ball in there instead of throwin the dam thing. He tries me out with one of them slowwww pitches he's got, probably calls it a curveball but it aint got no more curve than my tits. I dont even look at it, just step back out the box and wiggle the bat, loose up my shoulders while Blue stands there behind the plate and dont say nothing. Next pitch, he tries the same blamed thing--and the umps gotta be wondering the same thing I am: does he think I'm dumb? That from the ballerina-toe-kick guy. Well now Ive kinda got him where I want him, cause he has to throw me something, maybe that fastball of his that aint no faster bout than the ball used to come bouncing back off the barn door when you and me'd take turns throwin when we was kids. An thats what he goes and throws me, a grade-A meatball, and next thing you know that big lummox of a left fielder's out there waving his arms around like hes drowning and I'm dusting myself off at second base.

Now it aint no secret that we been having some hard times lately, and I'm standing there at second thinking maybe things is starting to turn around, this the first inning an all. Ryan Brauns up next, and after him the big guy, so somebody's gonna chase me around them bases, right?

So the first pitch he throws to Braun's the same blamed pitch he tossed me that I dented that left field wall with. Ryan pops bout four buttons off'n his jersey and durn near turns hisself crosseyed but all he does is bust it foul. I try to wave to him tell him to calm down--hes only twenty-four, don't hardly have to shave yet, and he aint got the veteran cool I got. But the second pitch he does the same thing, only this time that dope Arroyo's got smart, and its up around his eyes. Aint nobody ever hit that pitch and aint nobody ever will, cepting maybe Vlad. But Ryan aint one to play wait and see, and maybe he's right--next pitch is another meatball, pretty for hittin as any you'll ever see. But all the kid can do is knock it right back to the screen, and I'm still standing down there at second base, starting to get tuckered out from jumpin every which way every time.

And heres where it gets weird and where that cussed manager of our started in to losing us the game. You know me, Al: I aint no baserunner. I know what order to run 'em in, and I do a mean jog around 'em when I park one but I don't do much else'n that. So when I'm on second and looking down at Leyva down there in the coaching box, I mostly just look make sure he's there. He aint gonna give me no sign that matters none.

But this time I look over and I tell you, what I saw made my eyes hurt. Leyva's a-slapping and swiping and tugging at his cap, and I aint no baserunner but I know the sign for a steal when I see it and thats what hes giving me. The goon is tellin me to steal third! I got three steals all year, Al--I aint no base stealer. I aint gonna make third if they let me start out in the third baseman's pocket. So I look over at coach with a kinda hunkered-down look, squint my eyes at him make sure he knows I know what hes doin. And I'll be darned if he don't go through that whole slap swipe tug thing again. Even as I get my lead I know its the dumbest idea in the world, but there it is. Im stealin third.

Like I said, that Arroyo's got a ballerina leg kick, but he dont use that when there's guys on, so I got to watch his feet more close, and when he starts to moving I scoot for third base, hoping and prayin that Braun's gonna park this one so what I know's going happen aint going happen. I didn't see where the pitch was--I was too busy watching that damned Encarnacion waiting for me like the ol' Grim Reaper down third base--but I hear tell it was about a mile outside, and Ryan bout threw his bat into the crowd trying to get it, 'cause he seen me streaking down there like a moron, but he cant get it and the next thing I know I'm as out as out can be and thats the third out.

I get back to the dugout and Leyva and Yost are there jawing at each other. Yost is asking Leyva why he sent me, Leyva's asking Yost why he told him to send me, and I'm standing there cussing and slapping at the dirt on my uniform. Yost says he wasnt telling Leyva to send me--and here's where I almost just bout give up and went home, cause this team's snakebit--he was just scratching away at a mosquito bite, that's all, didn't mean nothing by it.

Just scratching away at a mosquito bite, didn't mean nothing by it. Oh, did I do some cussing then. That blamed mosquito sent me to my certain doom, and I think that's kinda what finished us of for that game. We went out there an right quick gave up about a hundred runs or so and we were done for the day.

Like I said, Al, I think this teams snakebit. Or mosquito bit. All I knows I'm killing every one of those rotten things I can find in that dugout tomorrow.

Yours truly,

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Twenty Lines a Day

{Photo by rocketlass.}

One of the inspirations for this blog was Harry Mathews's Twenty Lines a Day (1988), a brief book that Mathews wrote following an instruction Stendhal gave himself in the course of working on a novel:
Twenty lines a day, genius or not.
Mathews explains his intentions in his introduction:
Like many writers, I often find starting the working day a discouraging prospect, one that I spend much energy avoiding. . . . I deliberately mistook [Stendhal's] words as a method for overcoming the anxiety of the blank page. Even for a dubious, wary writer, twenty lines seemed a reassuring obtainable objective, especially if they had no connection with a "serious" project like a novel or an essay.

When I began this blog, I wasn't doing any writing regularly outside of work. I've never been one to keep a journal, and while I would regularly find myself--especially while running--thinking at length about, or even arguing with, the books I had been reading, absent any outside pressure I would eventually just open up a new book and move on. So with Harry Mathews in mind, I decided that I would commit to writing at least a couple of times per week about books and see if I could turn it into a habit--a concept that Michel Tournier explains, cryptically yet unforgettably, in The Mirror of Ideas (1994), with reference to the brain:
The role of the brain is precisely to elaborate the past for the needs of present life. It keeps only the learned movement, eliminating the date and circumstances that surrounded its acquisition.
We cultivate a habit, and eventually it becomes so ingrained, so natural, that we don't even remember quite how we developed it in the first place. So I signed up for a blog and got to work.

While I set myself a specific writing task, Harry Mathews seemingly let his mind work through whatever topic floated to the top when he sat down. Twenty Lines a Day includes entries that essentially take the form of a journal, some that border on automatic writing, a few that are fable-like, and others that resemble Oulipean experiments. Not all of them are interesting or successful on any terms other than that of the original impulse to write something; the entry for December 13, 1983, for example, begins:
I have nothing to write in particular. I'm writing these lines because of my rule that I must write them.
Though I know that some days my posts are better or more inspired than others, it's got to be a good sign that I haven't yet had a day when I felt that I was writing solely out of obligation. (To be fair, Mathews had a good excuse for being empty of ideas that day: he was in the middle of writing his masterpiece, Cigarettes.)

Mathews's good entries, on the other hand, are so varied that it's hard to pick a favorite. Twenty Lines a Day is a book that's best read a bit at a time, here and there, a book to keep next to the chair in which you drink your coffee of a morning. My favorite today, I think, is this one, from just a few days after the uninspired entry above, December 17, 1983:
The fun about things, as about thoughts, is getting them, not having them. They become obvious once you have them, just another part of a familiar landscape. Two days ago I came across my course notes about the imaginary reader--the one the writer invents to listen to his imaginary narrator, and on whom the actual reader eavesdrops--and because I'd forgotten the notion I enjoyed a moment of mild excitement reunderstanding it. But after a moment it was back on its rack among the dusty bottles. This has also happened with what I bought myself yesterday (a day mainly devoted to the purchase of Christmas presents): a tape deck, a cassette rack, an outdoor winter country jacket. I nailed the rack into place last night; the tape deck, having been adequately studied in the instruction manual, has been installed in its definitive place; the jacket hangs on a peg by the front door as if it had been there for years. All three will certainly provide convenience or pleasure in coming days as they are used, but the wonder disappeared from them as soon as they were unwrapped and their price tags removed. The wonder grew from the expectation that they would change something in life (how nifty having one's cassettes so handily arrayed, how delicious acceding to glorious music by slipping cassettes into the deck, how warmly glamorous walking outdoors in a bronze-colored, ring-necked, thigh-long jacket). But "of course" I know that expectation is the stupidest kind of lure. . . . What I know too is that the pleasure of buying the things was a real and sufficient one: the pleasure of giving presents and of allowing oneself to be their worthy recipient.

I think of bringing home a couple of lovely, well-designed books from the bookstore, and of how as I stack them on the windowsill or precariously wedge them atop a row of books in the bookcase, it will seem essential that I read them right away--as soon, that is, as I'm done with what I'm in the middle of reading at that moment. A few days pass, my time and attention are lured away by other books, and soon those books are buried under a newer, fresher layer, becoming an indistinguishable part of the never-diminishing mass of unread words that fills our house. The urgency--that "lure of expectation"--is gone.

But books, unlike cassette decks and cassette racks and jackets, are capable of storing that urgency, unsullied, to surprise you with it some Saturday morning when you're wandering your bookshelves, looking for a novel. You're in the mood for a particular tone, a specific feel, and you just can't identify it . . .

February 22, 1984:
Choosing the next book to read resembles choosing a restaurant or the next Italian town to visit: none ever seems quite right. You want something that corresponds perfectly to your desire, and you can't identify that desire until you find what arouses it. . . . What do you want from a book? No: what do you want from choosing a book? To stand on the threshold of the unfamiliar, the inevitably familiar viewed unfamiliarly, the known capabilities of language yielding opportunities for you to react to them (to reinvent them yourself) with breathtaking, with breathgiving wonder.

Finally you spot it, just the book you needed, and you remember how excited you were when you brought it home. How could you have left that sitting on your shelf, unread, for a year?

And then there are the books we re-read, discovering that they, too, have retained that power, that a single reading hasn't come close to exhausting their possibilities. That's where my wander through my bookshelves took me last Sunday night, to an old favorite, and all week I've been wrapped up once more in Proust--who, incidentally, also had something to say about the blank page.

From The Guermantes Way (1920), translated by Mark Treharne
If only I had been able to start writing! But, however I set about it (all to similarly, alas, to the resolve to give up alcohol, to go to bed early, to get enough sleep and to keep fit), whether it was in a spurt of activity, with method, with pleasure, in depriving myself of a walk, or postponing it and reserving it as a reward, taking advantage of an hour of feeling well, making use of the inaction forced upon me by a day's illness, the inevitable result of my efforts was a blank page, untouched by writing, as predestined as the forced card that you inevitably end up drawing in certain tricks, however thoroughly you have first shuffled the pack. I was merely the instrument of habits of not working, of not going to bed, of not sleeping, which had to fulfil themselves at any cost; if I offered no resistance, if I made do with the pretext they drew from the first opportunity that arose for them to act as they chose, I escaped without serious harm, I still slept for a few hours towards morning, I managed to read a little, I did not over-exert myself; but if I tried to resist them, by deciding to go to bed early, to drink only water, to work, they became annoyed, they resorted to strong measures, they made me really ill, I was obliged to double my dose of alcohol, I did not go to bed for two days, I could not even read, and I would vow to be more reasonable in future, that is to say less wise, like the victim who allows himself to be robbed for fear of being murdered if he puts up resistance.

And with that, because I am, after all, decidedly a creature of habit, I'm off to bed before the hour gets too unreasonable.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Murakami and Laika, part two

Part one is here.

Appropriately enough for the novel that followed the tales-within-tales of Murakami's grandly ambitious The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the uncanny enters Sputnik Sweetheart through a story, told by a woman with whom Sumire has fallen in love. It's a stunningly creepy account of a late-night experience at a carnival that turned her hair white and, she says, essentially broke her--and her life--irrevocably into two pieces. From there, the strangeness builds, and the Greek island begins to resemble a de Chirico painting, shadowy and depopulated, but with hints of threatening life around every corner; following more than a hundred pages of straightforward realism, the eruption of the fantastic--and chilling--is all the more believable and compelling. From the start we knew that the novel would end with loss, and the strange events surrounding that loss, never clearly explained, serve both to deepen its impact and make it seem sadly inevitable.

My friend Kristi calls Murakami a pessimist, while I've argued before on this blog that he strikes me as at worst a grudging optimist. After I read Norwegian Wood, I wrote that Murakami's vision, without denying life's traumas, seems to honor the simple effort of daily living:
Norwegian Wood is crowded with suicides, nearly all by teenagers. . . . . Some of the kids have fairly clear reasons, while others are essentially inexplicable, but the overall sense is that, faced with the quotidian difficulties of life, they decided they were unable to continue. In the face of so much death, there is a real sense of hard-won victory, of tangible achievement in the simple fact that the narrator is still alive twenty years later, able to vividly recall and tell us this story of his youth. His life has included great loss, disappointment, and sorrow, but he has kept going.
We don't know for sure that the narrator of Sputnik Sweetheart will make that choice, but the book closes on a note of quiet determination.

Which brings me back to Laika. What is Murakami trying to say by linking his story to that one? Is Kristi right about Murakami's pessimism? That doesn't seem so far-fetched: after all, Laika's story is one of sheer hopelessness--there was never a way out for her, just as it seems that there was no way Murakami's narrator in could have kept his love.

I recently told a friend that an essential part of writing a blog like this is a willingness to make decisions about works of art and seem reasonably confident about them--despite knowing that somewhere down the road I might change my mind, or be convinced that I was wrong. In interpreting Laika's story I will admit to being less confident than usual; Murakami's stories are richly multivalent, and I fear that I may be seeing what I want to see. As I continue reading my way through Murakami's oeuvre, I realize that I may reach a different position.

But for now I prefer to read the story as support for my view of Murakami the grudging optimist. We are all like Laika to some extent, set in motion by forces we don't know and can't understand, heading to a destination we can't even conceive clearly. Of course, most of us are much luckier than Laika, our fates nowhere near as horrid--but at the same time, like her we are constantly watching people and things we love and cherish fall away beneath us, loss perhaps the only constant in our long lives.

Yet our space capsule keeps moving, ultimately out of our control, and we have to keep moving with it--so we might as well look out the window and continue thinking about what we see. Faced with the inevitability of loss, we must find a way to give that loss meaning while simultaneously attempting to retain what we can't afford to lose, our very self. So we tell stories, and we pass them on, and meanwhile we pay attention to the things of the world--the art, yes, but also the ephemera and the junk, the very stuff that hedges us about and helps, whether we like it or not, to define who we are.

We can't possibly come through life whole, but if we shore up enough of that everyday stuff, after a terrible loss we just might be able use it as a sort of mold, a place in which to re-form the shattered self. The first step, Murakami seems to remind us again and again, is simply to keep taking the first step.

Murakami and Laika, part one

Every time I write about Haruki Murakami's novels, I find myself moving past a simple evaluation or recommendation (That part is easy: they're deeply rewarding and you should read them.) to consider instead just what Murakami is trying to say, what his larger intentions might be. His meanings are never quite clear; he surrounds them with an organic strangeness, an obscurantism that seems not so much willful--let alone ill-intentioned--as inherent and essential.

To open Sputnik Sweetheart (1999), however, Murakami employs a tool that writers have long used as a way to draw readers' attention to their underlying themes and intentions: an epigraph. Taken from The Complete Chronicle of World History, it reads:
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world's first man-made satellite, Sputnik I, from the Baikanor Space Center in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Sputnik was 58 centimeters in diameter, weighed 83.6 kilograms, and orbited the earth in 96 minutes and 12 seconds.

On November 3 of the same year, Sputnik II was successfully launched, with the dog Laika on board. Laika became the first living being to leave the earth's atmosphere, but the satellite was never recovered, and Laika ended up sacrificed for the sake of biological research in space.

Seemingly ever since the launch, people have found Laika's story powerfully moving, and artists and writers have drawn on it in various forms. (Jeanette Winterson recently turned Laika into a central component of her retelling of the myth of Atlas, Weight.) Why, in the face of the many indisputably worse acts perpetrated by humans in recent decades, does this one story resonate so strongly? In large part, unquestionably, it's simply because Laika was a dog, and many people are irrationally sensitive to the welfare of dogs in a way that they are not about other animals, including humans. But I think it's also--maybe even primarily--because the horrific circumstances make it unusually easy for us to put ourselves in Laika's place and imagine what she felt: from everything you can tell, you're doing what you should do, behaving how you're supposed to behave, when suddenly everything you've known is gone and you've been utterly abandoned. It's an image of deep loss and despair, mixed with a cruel, incomprehensible fate--and that's the pall that Murakami's epigraph casts over Sputnik Sweetheart.

Opening the book in that mood, I was reminded of Murakami's Norwegian Wood, which shares that air of inevitable loss. And sure enough, from the elegaic first paragraph on, Sputnik Sweetheart reads like a stranger, more sinister cousin of Norwegian Wood. They tell stories that are similar in their rough outline, of doomed love affairs, but while Norwegian Wood is narrated by a middle-aged man looking back on his college years, Sputnik Sweetheart is related by a twenty-four-year-old who has only recently experienced--and not by any means yet come to grips with--the events he describes. Both men love a young woman who cannot, for various reasons, return that love; the men turn instead to other women who are attractive, interesting, and sympathetic but who will never be able to displace the unavailable lover. In both novels, the desired women remove themselves to remote locations while the men are left alone, biding their time, yearning. Murakami's treatment of that yearning is deeply poignant in both books, though it takes noticeably different forms in the prose of the two novels--more wistful in the case of Norwegian Wood's older narrator, affectless to the point of naivete in the case of Sputnik Sweetheart, a reminder that Murakami's straightforward style, despite its seeming transparency, is the product of skill and care.

For half of its length, Sputnik Sweetheart also seems to share the commitment to realism that makes Norwegian Wood stand out among Murakami's novels. None of his trademark fantastical strangeness, or, really, even his quirkiness, is to be found--until suddenly the narrator receives a late-night phone call from the Greek island where the young woman, Sumire, has been staying, and the uncanny breaks into his reality.

This is getting very long, so I'll save the rest for tomorrow.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

In honor of our nation's history of carefully executed labor, some well-turned phrases from a master craftsman

I was right on Friday: it's turned out to be a weekend for books that can be read in one sitting. Simenon down, I'm on to the newest entry on Hard Case Crime's list, Robert Terrral's Kill Now, Pay Later (1960).

I'm only a quarter of the way through it, but Terrall's already won me over with his way with lacerating descriptions, which flow nicely out of his sardonic detective. Like this:
She was enormously fat and loaded with jewels, like the wife of a slum landlord in an old-fashioned radical cartoon.
(Appropriately for Labor Day, that brings to mind the giant, hideous-looking inflatable rats that unions will perch outside of non-union work sites.)

Mere pages later, the detective describes a much-despised insurance inspector:
He was thin and dapper, with an ebbing hairline and a narrow, nervous mustache which seemed to have landed on his upper lip by accident.

Then an arrogant local cop enters the picture:
He was well over six feet, and didn't have much fat on him except around the mouth. He had an abundant crop of iron-gray hair, and I diagnosed him at once as the kind of extremist who gets a weekly haircut. The fat lips smiled at me, showing teeth that were too beautiful to be his own.
That's effectively mean-spirited, though it doesn't have quite the sting to it that the above descriptions share. But that's only because, like a skilled comedian, Terrall knows how to parcel out his material, saving the best for an unexpected return to a theme, in this case a dozen pages later:
We continued to look at each other. I was fascinated by the teeth. They would have made a wonderful prop for a hypnotist.

Oh, this one's going to be good.