Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Futabatei Shimei's Ukigumo - He went back upstairs to wait.

Futabatei Shimei's Ukigumo or Drifting Clouds (1887-89) is the first modern Japanese novel. Meaning the first to successfully incorporate novelistic techniques like interiority, colloquial language, and psychological realism.

It's a strange, almost inevitably disappointing, category, "first X novel." I read another example earlier this year, Mendele Mocher Sforim's "The Little Man." It was quite good - Ukigumo is quite good - but I could not help but marvel a bit that this is the source of all the fuss.

The literary ideas, the literary possibilities, that are now historically attached to Ukigumo or "The Little Man" have been completely absorbed, explored, undermined and rebuilt by other, greater, writers and books. The linguistic innovations, such as the colloquial conversations, are even worse, hard to discover in translation. So it would be strange if the "first" novel did not seem a little pale.

Futabatei's models were English and Russian. Bunzo, protagonist of Ukigumo, is a Turgenev-like Superfluous Man. We meet him just as he has been laid off from some vague government job. His plans to marry his young cousin are disrupted. Passive to begin with, he is reduced to something close to inactivity and silence. A rival bureaucrat moves in on his cousin, with the connivance of his status-seeking aunt (a first-rate character, the best thing in the book). The novel ends in stasis and irresolution. In all likelihood, Futabatei left the book unfinished, but the ending, although unsatisfying, is fitting (the last sentence is in my post's title).

If it sounds like the sort of thing one has read before, it is. The Japanese setting generates interest, though. We're in modernizing Meiji Japan. The novel begins with a description of office workers and their weird mix of Western and Japanese beards and clothes. The ethos is definitely not that of a Turgenev novel.

To my knowledge, Ukigumo is only available in English as part of Marleigh Grayer Ryan's Japan's First Modern Novel: Ukigumo of Futabatei Shimei (1967), Columbia University Press. Half of that book is the translation, half is annotation and apparatus. It all seemed pretty good to me.

How I need to go fill in the paperwork to register my completion of the Japanese Literature Challenge.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tahar Ben Jelloun's The Sand Child - what's Borges doing here?

Jorge Luis Borges is a writer with whom I feel very comfortable. He's had as much impact on the way I think about books as just about anyone. Don't know how much that really shows up here.

I have read a few contemporary novels that make their debt to Borges explicit. W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn (1999) and Roberto Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996) both used Borges as a touchstone. My understanding of Borges was an enormous help in finding a way into these challenging books. Maybe I was pointed in some narrow, or wrong directions, who knows. But I was inside the books, not just scratching my head.

Borges presence guarantees nothing, though. Orham Pamuk's The New Life (1997) was littered with Borgesian ideas. But at the end of the book I was still baffled, lost. The Borges life raft failed me.

In Tahar Ben Jelloun's The Sand Child (1985) a Moroccan father of seven daughters demands a son. When his eighth child, another daughter, is born, he finds a solution: he declares that the child is a boy. One might think - I did - that this deception, and its various complications and implications, would be the subject of the novel, and would be sufficiently interesting. I was startled, then, to find that by page 60 of 165, our hero was not only an adult, but a widower. Now what?

The story fragments. Different tellers push the character in different directions. One narrator ends Ahmed / Zahra's story with appalling violence. His listeners hate it: "Your story is terrible!" (111). They supply new, better endings, all, they insist, true.

So maybe I should not have been surprised when a blind Argentinean writer shows up to narrate a couple of chapters:

"I told myself that by inventing stories with living people and throwing them into forked paths or houses filled with sand, I had ended up imprisoned in this room with a character or, rather, a riddle, two faces of the same being completely entrammeled in an unfinished story, a story of ambiguity and flight!" (140)

Labyrinths, mysterious books and artifacts, The Arabian Nights. Why it's Señor Borges himself, visiting a Moroccan novel at the invitation of Mr. Ben Jelloun. The Sand Child is primarily about storytelling. Everyone interested in Islamic gender issues who picked up the novel has been tricked.

I don't understand The Sand Child well, even though Borges once again helped, pointing out a possible path. That Laila Lalami novel I read also pulled in the storytelling theme at the end. Tahir Shah's book In Arabian Nights (2009) is explicitly about Moroccan storytelling. Hey, maybe there's a pattern here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The world's best novels, 1899 edition

I've been enjoying, a bit too much for my own good, the amazing 1899 London Daily Telegraph list of the "100 Best Novels in the World," brought to my attention by the Rose City Reader. The world, you don't say!

The top authors by number of books:

Walter Scott, 7
Charles Dickens, 5
Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 4
Captain Frederick Marryat, 4

And with 3 novels each:
W. H. Ainsworth
James Fennimore Cooper
Alexandre Dumas
Victor Hugo
Charles Kinglsey
Charles Reade
William Thackeray

Ten of the Best Novels in the World are in a language other than English: the six Dumas and Hugo novels, plus Père Goriot and Eugène Sue's The Wandering Jew in French; Anna Karenina in Russian; the recent international bestseller Quo Vadis in Polish. This is pathetic. In fairness, the editors and so on responsible for this list had no idea such a book as Dead Souls existed. The English-speaking world was about to get schooled in Russian literature. What excuse they had for the absence of Don Quixote, Candide, The Betrothed, and The Sorrows of Young Werther is beyond me. Ditto for Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, and so many more.

The three Thackeray novels omit Vanity Fair. The single George Eliot novel is Scenes of Clerical Life. None of the five Dickens novels are Bleak House or Great Expectations or David Copperfield. Henry James, Herman Melville, Gustave Flaubert, Stendhal, Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, Zola - all are absent. Instead, we find Elsie Venner by Oliver Wendell Holmes and Valentine Vox by Henry Cockton and The Deemster by Hall Caine and Soapy Sponge's Sporting Tour by R. S. Surtees.

I want to mock these obscurities. But a few minutes with Google Books reveals a horrible truth: these absurdly overrated books were good. Not great. But try a page 90 test at one of the links above. They're OK. The Surtees actually looks quite a bit better than OK. I'm sure there are a few truly hideous duds on that list (Sue's The Wandering Jew is my bet), but mostly these are good books. The bad books take care of themselves. Canon-formation is all about sorting through the good books. Almost none of them are going to make it. Curdles the blood, it does.

A useful point to note: not so long ago, Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret and Wood's Easy Lynne would have been in the "forgotten" pile. But they have been revived by scholars and teachers for various reasons. Maybe they will fade away again, replaced by something else. Or maybe not. But they remind me of part of the value of these lists. Books die, books are resurrected. Some intrepid visitor to the Rose City Reader may try out one of these puzzlers and find something no one knew was there.

Enough on this topic, for now, for a long time. Back to books I've actually read.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The grateful sense of sweetness near - a bit of "Snow-Bound"

"Snow-Bound" (1866) was, one might suspect, actually designed as a unique form of torment for high school students. Twenty pages of rhymed couplets describing a snowed-in week of the poet's childhood, "These Flemish pictures of old days," mixed with reflections on loss and the passage of time and the road not taken and so on. Which contemporary writer was it who described growing up in Whittier's Haverhill, MA, and being forced to memorize parts of "Snow-Bound" on the finest May afternoon of the year? It's all perfectly crafted to bore a poor high school kid to death.

Well, that's all before my time. The Fireside Poets were all pretty much gone from my high school curriculum. Maybe a little Longfellow remained. So I have the freedom to actually enjoy "Snow-Bound," a nostalgic childhood poem that is also a complex investigation of nostalgia. It's also masterfully structured, and has some superb lines. It's the John Greenleaf Whittier paradox - if he was capable of this, why did he do it so seldom?

The beginning of the poem is cleanly nostalgic. A storm approaches; the farm hunkers down; the storm hits; the farm digs out a bit, enough to feed the animals. In the evening, the family entertains itself around the fire. There are a lot of nice touches ("And through the glass the clothes-line posts \ Looked in like tall and sheeted ghosts"), but a reader might wonder if there's more to the poem than nostalgic remembrance.

There is, there is. The fireside entertainment is storytelling. Whittier deftly switches from his parents' stories of their own childhood to descriptions of the other inhabitants of the house - his uncle the amateur naturalist, his maiden aunt, his sisters, the schoolmaster, and one really odd one, a guest, Harriet Livermore, a religious enthusiast who later traveled the world and lived for a time with the Queen of the Desert, Lady Hester Stanhope. But that's a whole 'nother story. "Or startling on her desert throne \ The crazy Queen of Lebanon \ With claims fantastic as her own."

That sympathetic portrait of the strict, dedicated schoolmaster - just one more turn of the screw for those poor high school students. "Brisk wielder of the birch and rule," wonderful. But it's these people who make the poem great, and cuts the cloyingness of the nostalgia. Their loss is real. It should be mourned, they should be remembered. Well, I want to think about this more. It's a complicated poem.

The poetic language is unusually good. For Whittier, I mean. The last line, for example:

The traveller owns the grateful sense
Of sweetness near, he knows not whence,
And, pausing, takes with forehead bare
The benediction of the air.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Trembling, I listened - there's at least one Whittier masterpiece

John Greenleaf Whittier makes a good punching bag. Even in a short collection like the Robert Penn Warren edition that I'm reading, just 143 pages of poems, there are some duds shocking enough to almost make me morbidly curious about the contents of Whittier's seven volumes of collected poems. And plenty of other poems have fine lines or passages, but falter.

Whittier began publishing poems in 1926, at the age of 19. He was poetically gifted, without a doubt. Neither Warren or Brenda Wineapple, who edited the short Library of America Whittier, thinks he wrote a decent poem for twenty years or more ("Song of Slaves in the Desert" (1847), that's the first good one). Both editors essentially skip the entire period.

Reading Whittier's lesser poems perhaps softens my judgment, but it was once again a shock to turn to "Telling the Bees" (1858), which looks and sounds to me like a genuinely great poem.


Here is the place; right over the hill
  Runs the path I took;
You can see the gap in the old wall still,
  And the stepping-stones in the shallow brook.

It is not a linguistically complicated poem, and the single effect is hardly unique to this poem. The narrator returns to his girlfriend's house after a month's absence. As he approaches, he looks at this, he looks at that. Almost nothing has changed.


Just the same as a month before,--
  The house and the trees,
The barn's brown gable, the vine by the door,--
  Nothing changed but the hives of bees.

Before them, under the garden wall,
  Forward and back,
Went drearily singing the chore-girl small,
  Draping each hive with a shred of black.

Whittier tells us, in a header, of the rural New England custom of telling the bees of any death, and of dressing the hives in mourning.


Trembling, I listened: the summer sun
  Had the chill of snow;
For I knew she was telling the bees of one
  Gone on the journey we all must go!

Then I said to myself, "My Mary weeps
  For the dead to-day:
Haply her blind old grandsire sleeps
  The fret and the pain of his age away."


Two stanzas left. I'll bet you can guess the ending, and if not the surprise will be appreciated. The bee custom adds a sense of mystery or sublimity to what might be a cloying scene. The nostalgic tone, which seems to be Whittier's primary late career mode, is undercut by real loss. The lines are not necessarily individually perfect, but I can't hear any clinkers.

The pace, which I have butchered, is well-measured. The second line of each stanza, the five beat line, really works, whether reading silently or aloud:

Heavy and slow;
To love, a year;
The house and the trees,
Forward and back,

Very simple, looking at them on their own. Simple in language, not in metrical effect. A little touch of poetical magic there.

An odd feature of poetry is that a poet can occasionally remain well-known ("immortal") for a single poem. I think "Telling the Bees" will keep Whittier in those American poetry anthologies.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Evidence of the decline and fall of John Greenleaf Whittier

I counted the pages devoted to 19th century poets in eight anthologies of American poetry. With one exception, the books all try to cover all of American poetry, from the Anne Bradstreet or what have you to their own day. The Library of America anthology is in two volumes, and covers the 19th century only. Robert Frost is included as a reference point. Clicking should enlarge the table:














I find this all a little too interesting. Look at that stuffy 1912 Yale Book of American Verse - no Dickinson, no Melville, almost no Whitman. Just Fireside Poets as far as the eye can see. The 1900 E. C. Stedman anthology is much more daring.

Note how David Lehman's 2006 New Oxford anthology, compared to Richard Ellman's 1976 version, decimates the 19th century poets. He puts everything before the 20th century in a vise, and freezes the pre-World War II poets, in order find room for more recent poets. Look what he does to poor John Greenleaf Whittier - 39 pages in 1976, 6 in 2006.

Another way to see this is to look at the rankings. I report the top 6 or 7:













Note the rise of Walt Whitman from obscurity to crushing eminence. Dickinson, and to a lesser degree Melville, also show nice, steady increases in ranking. The Fireside Poets do terribly. Holmes and Lowell completely shrivel, Bryant fades with dignity, Whittier hangs on with the long "Snow-Bound" (typically half of his pages). Only Longfellow maintains any sort of parity.

This is one way that canon formation works. Editors have limited space in their anthologies. If they want to add anything, they have to cut something else. A publisher can add pages - see the "Total Pages" row - but there are physical limits.

Whitman was clearly underrated. Dickinson and Melville, too. Or maybe now we greatly overrate them. Based on my own reading, this progression has been exactly right. But I live now, so of course my tastes, prejudices, and judgments are not those of a reader of 1900. I guess I could be a cranky contrarian. That's fun. Actually, I would say that Longfellow is now a bit underrated, and would also note that Poe is probably not served well by this page-counting measure, since he did not write much verse, although he seems to do all right in the rankings.

This is all motivated by my reading of a collection of John Greenleaf Whittier poems, the oddly labeled John Greenleaf Whittier's Poetry "by" Robert Penn Warren. Not sure about that "by" - Warren includes a long essay on Whittier, but I'm pretty sure the 150 pages of poems are by Whittier. The selection (and length) is similar to the Brenda Wineapple Library of America volume. The heart of the problem is that despite the seven thick volumes of John Greenleaf Whittier poems, there are nowhere close to 150 pages of good poems. Maybe forty. The great puzzle to Warren is not how a great poet wrote so much junk, but how a bad poet occasionally wrote a masterpiece.

David Lehman is too hard on Whittier, but to anyone who classifies him as the third or fourth or fifth best 19th century poet, I say: overrated!

All errors my own (and likely), data available by request, etc. Bibliography, in chronological order:

An American Anthology: 1787-1900 (1900), ed. Edmund Clarence Stedman, Greenwood Press reprint, available as a Google Books PDF.
Yale Book of American Verse (1912), ed. Thomas R. Lounsbury, Yale University Press.
The Oxford Book of American Verse (1927), ed. Bliss Carman, Oxford University Press.
The Oxford Book of American Verse (1950), ed. F. O. Matthiessen, Oxford University Press.
American Poetry (1965), eds. Gay Wilson Allen, Walter B. Rideout, and James K. Robinson, Harper & Row.
The New Oxford Book of American Verse (1976), ed. Richard Ellman, Oxford University Press.
American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Vols. 1 and 2 (1993), ed. John Hollander, Library of America.
The New Oxford Book of American Verse (2006), ed. David Lehman, Oxford University Press.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The most overrated novel, book, poem, or author of all time

The Denver Bibliophile (actually, see here) and the Commonplace Blog are asking for nominations for the most overrated novel. Nominees so far include The Lord of the Rings, Atlas Shrugged, Brave New World, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Beloved, and Emma (?!?!?!?!). Also, The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, submitted by a reader who obviously misunderstands the game.

No one really bothers to say why they picked a particular book, or what criteria they might be using.* One guy picks The Catcher in the Rye, on the grounds that he doesn't see its appeal, which is approaching a reason.

I've never liked the overrated game myself. It's so imprecise. Just look at the Denver Bibliophile's question: "Which do you consider to be the most overrated novel(s)"? This could mean "the most often overrated novel," in which case adolescent enthusiasm for Tolkien or Rand may very well provide the correct answer. I once overrated Tolkien my own self.

Or it could mean "has the largest gap between the conventional estimation of its value and its true value." That estimation does not necessarily depend on the book being read that much. Finnegans Wake and The Dream of the Red Chamber and Clarissa are esteemed, but rarely read. We rely on experts (expert because they actually read the thing) to report back - "Even more brilliant than I expected!" or "Oh-ver-rated!"

One could perhaps use a historical approach, comparing reputations over time. Assuming that we, right now, are correct, Walter Scott's novels are among the most overrated of all time. Same for those of James Fenimore Cooper, or George Sand.

But Scott and Cooper and Sand are still read (just not ranked nearly as high). Perhaps one should look for the once-esteemed but now completely unread. The novels of Bulwer-Lytton and Ainsworth and Eugène Sue, say. They're hard to discuss, though, because almost no one has read them.

Leaving novels aside, I can think of some interesting examples. Voltaire made his reputation on his plays. Now they're completely dead, not even performed in France. It was the plays that were great, everyone knew that, not his sneering little Candide. The plays of Voltaire were, it seems, greatly overrated.

Meine Frau reminds me of the Christian verse epic of Klopstock, The Messiah (1748+), the last great epic, successor to Milton, etc., etc., now regarded as one of the most boring books ever written. Or the playwright August von Kotzebue (1761-1819), in the early 19th century not just the most popular dramatist in Europe but the best. Everyone knew he was the best. Now he's food for book mites.

The Little Professor seems to have had a similar reaction. She follows this vein with examples from her own research.

I suppose that people mostly mean "Everyone else thinks this is great, but they're wrong and I'm right," weighted in some way by the status of the book. Using that criterion, or the historical one, my pick is The Pilgrim's Progess (1678), a morally questionable book that was for a long time the second-most popular book in English. Since it is now massively less popular, it was, in that narrow sense, greatly overrated. Bunyan's novel is filled with imagery and language of the highest originality, and has had a permanent impact on our language. So maybe everyone else is right and I'm wrong. Still, it's among the books I dislike the most, for what are basically ethical reasons.

The second most overrated must be, let's see, The Compleat Angler (1653+)? Hugely popular, never out of print since it's publication. It's sweet. It's charming. It's about fishing, for Pete's sake.

This whole overrated business struck a chord of interest because I'm currently reading a real test case, a once-overrated, or perhaps now-underrated, poet, John Greenleaf Whittier. More on that tomorrow.

Feel free to chime in, here or at one of the above sites - but make a case, huh?

* Update: But see the D.G. Myers comment at the Little Professor's post - now that's the way to do it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Wuthering Expectations: Its Origin, Development, Decline, and Residuary Influence

Why, it's my birthday. Two years of Wuthering Expectations. Last year, I celebrated with Wuthering Heights. Logically, this year it should be Great Expectations. Yeah, maybe next year.

Since it's a holiday, you will please forgive the self-indulgence. Sonny Rollins gave one of his great recent albums a great, unapologetic title: This Is What I Do (2000).

This is what I do:

The Hawthorne graph. The Poe graph.

I often think in terms of weeks. Jane Eyre week wasn't bad, for example: books, chronologyfairies, Helen, revenge.

Golem Week was actually only four days long, but seemed to go well.

The 19th Century Yiddish Literature Project wraps up here. And there's more where that came from.

The Big Balzac Blowout begins here and ends here. That was 11 posts. I don't want to link them all. Balzac.

A Watched Plot Never Spoils, and Appreciationism, explained, attacked, and defended.

A year end hobbyhorse: 1807, 1808, 1818, 1828. The story for 1809 will be exactly the same, but that won't stop me.

I prefer Mansfield Park to Pride and Prejudice.

What is poetry for?

The Senegalese reading list might be useful to someone.

My ego is sufficiently well developed that I might just put this post in a permanent sidebar. And yet, I do not actually expect anyone to read any of this. It's an aid to the idly curious. Mostly, despite the evidence of the past week, I write about books. So the second-smartest thing is to click on the label to see what damage I have done to your favorite writer (e.g., STIFTER Adalbert).

The smartest thing is to stay off of the dang internet in the first place.

That title, by the way, is pinched from an actual book that bibliographing Nicole found (see her comments).

Friday, September 18, 2009

The only place where something like a conversation can be started about a poem of Ben Jonson's

William Pritchard has been a literature professor at Amherst College for over 50 years. He's written a memoir on the subject, English Papers: A Teaching Life (1995), of which I have read some excerpts. Looks pretty good.

But today I want to share another bit of the Preface to the new On Poets & Poetry that I think book bloggers will enjoy. In the Preface, Pritchard discusses why he writes book reviews, and then turns to his teaching:

"Selfishly, the classroom is central to my life because it is the only place where something like a conversation can be started about a poem of Ben Jonson's, Shakespeare's Cymbeline, or a novel by Henry James. One doesn't expect to have such a conversation when dining at a friend's or even when passing the time with a professional colleague. They might not have read or been reading the right book at the right time; for that to happen, something like a captive audience of more or less agreeable students is necessary." (p. xii)

Well. I suspect that some book bloggers might want to modify a word or two in that passage. It's almost exactly right.

I started Wuthering Expectations as a result of moving away from a fine, fine book club, still active and reading challenging books. We read Swann's Way, Bleak House, and The Leopard; Balzac and Byatt; Sebald and Waugh. We had a few disasters. Everyone loved Midnight's Children, but no one (including me) had anything to say about it. We could have used a professor that night. And The Crying of Lot 49 - no, I don't want to talk about that. Nine times out of ten, the book conversation, which generally lasted not much more than an hour, was excellent. This is all aside from some extraordinary food and wine.

So I missed that conversation. I still don't exactly count what I do as real conversation. We all understand the differences. But often, it is close, and occasionally very close. Book Blogger Appreciation Week has made visible to me some of the other ways that people try to create what Pritchard finds in the classroom.

Perhaps what I find mot heartening about what Pritchard writes is that, after the perils of a PhD, an admirable shelf of books, and a half century of teaching, he still wants that conversation. The act of reading the book is presumably the priority. But it's not quite enough.

It's not, is it?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Some encouragement from William Pritchard - a provocation to speak out, sometimes doubtless recklessly

William Pritchard is, I think, my favorite living critic.* I can't guess why he's not better known, except that one of his specialties is modern poetry (not such a big audience), and another is John Updike (a fading audience). Pritchard, a longtime English professor at Amherst College, made the deliberate decision early in his career to write for a larger audience, an audience that includes me.

His newest collections of book reviews and essays is titled On Poets & Poetry (2009). I've read some of it already - appreciations of John Dryden and of Johnson's Lives of the Poets - and most of the rest concerns moderns and Modernists. Pound, Eliot, Frost through Bishop, Lowell, Larkin. Someday, I will, inshallah, read those poets more seriously, and then I'll return to this book. For now, I actually just want it for a couple of pieces on Tennyson.

I wanted to mention a couple of lines from the book's preface, one today, one tomorrow.

Pritchard mentions the example of T. S. Eliot, who wrote hundreds of book reviews "most of which have never been available in book form":

"At the peril of inviting comparison with Eliot, it appears to me that, unlike the scholarly essay which must justify itself by bringing out a new aspect of a writer's work or correcting the inadequate interpretation of earlier critics, reviews are bound by no such rules. The reviewer is not only free but expected to take the book at hand as a chance to direct attention to central issues. As a critic he may speak to large matters of a poet's achievement, comparing the writer with contemporaries and predecessors in an effort to capture his or her distinctness. Under the confines of a thousand-word limit - or in more spacious situations double or treble that length** - he can embrace limits as a provocation to speak out, sometimes doubtless recklessly, in order to elicit something essential about his subject." (p. x)

He follows with a famous bit of Randall Jarrell, from "The Age of Criticism," in which Jarrell writes that the responsibility of the critic is "taking the chance of making a complete fool of himself."

Now that last part, I have that covered. Chance, taken; fool, made. That reckless freedom is a great part of why I keep writing here. When something does not work, I can try something else, with no costs at all. I guess I could damage my ability to "Monetize" Wuthering Expectations. Ha ha ha ha ha!

Prof. Myers expresses disappointment that so few bloggers are "committed to argument" (although he clearly understands why they are not). My Appreciationist temperament is all wrong for that task (mostly). But I think Pritchard is absolutely right. There are different kinds of provocation, different breeds of recklessness. Anyone who writes about books should discover the kind that works for him and cultivate it. If Pritchard, writing for professional publication, is free, think of the liberty possessed by we book bloggers.

I didn't set out to write anything related to Book Blogger Appreciation Week, but I obviously just did. And there's a bit more tomorrow.
* Along with Joseph Epstein. And Christopher Benfey. Ruth Franklin's good. Frank Kermode. Ingrid Rowland could hardly be better. Enough of this.

** Gotta say, any blogger going over three thousand words maybe ought to consider if anyone will read that much. I am being very generous allowing three thousand words.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Thinking back on my trip to Japan

A little over a year ago, I found myself, much to my surprise, in Tokyo. I spent a month there, weekdays in a tiny overheated conference room in front of two computers, weekends wandering about. I wasn't sure if I would be able to keep Wuthering Expectations going while I was there, but I did, helped by my camera and the fact that everything I saw was intensely interesting.

So looking back, the trip was good for my writing. I feel that I have been off my stride lately, although come to think of it, I always feel that way. Japan pushed me, made me think harder in some ways. I don't have that pressure now, and miss it a bit.

The trip was also good for my reading. It forced me to overcome my anxiety about the foreignness of Asian literature. The way I overcame it was by doing a little reading, so it turned out to not be so complicated. The great tradition of Japanese poetry, as brought into English by Kenneth Rexroth and others, is a delight, a breeze. The Chinese tradition is if anything richer. One reason I can so blithely say this is that Rexroth and David Hinton and so on only translate translatable poems. They make it all look easier than it really is.

Because of my chronological neurosis, I soon slipped away from Japanese literature, and back to Chinese poetry of the T'ang period, and earlier. And now I'm itching to move further back, to spend more time with the volumes of the Clay Sanskrit Library, if it were only easier to get hold of the dang things. A piece of the Ramayana is on its way.

I have been using Book Blogger Appreciation Week to expand my social network a little, to leave a few more comments here and there. One was at Dolce Bellezza, the generous hostess of the Japanese Literature Challenge, who invited me to participate. Well, I don't know, I don't ususally - hey, I thought of the right book, so OK.

The 19th century was a terrible time for Japanese literature. Possibly also for Japan. The book I'm going to read is thought of as the first modern Japanese novel, whatever that means. It's Ukigumo, or Drifting Clouds (1887), by Futabatei Shimei, Japanese translator of Turgenev. I know nothing else about it, except that it is only available in English in a volume titled Japan's First Modern Novel: Ukigumo of Futabatei Shimei (1967), author and translator, Marleigh Grayer Ryan. Way to sell it, Marleigh.

This is why I don't join challenges. My entire reading life is one giant challenge. Maybe I should host one. Anyone want to read John Galt? The early 19th century Scottish novelist? Two weeks on John Galt, forthcoming on Wuthering Expectations, as soon as I get his books read.

This is how I welcome the new readers I gain from expanding my blogging social network, with John Galt and a Japanese novel I've barely heard of. I should figure out how to work in some more Adalbert Stifter, while I'm at it.

Anyway, welcome, new readers!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits - a useful book, a mediocre novel

I picked one of the Moroccan books recommended to me, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami, and jumped in. I read the book all at once, over about two hours, which suggests a certain enthusiasm. In fact, in some ways it's quite a poor book, while in others it was just what I wanted.

One reason I zipped through the 195 pages so quickly is that the pages are unusually small. Another is that, I now see, the writing level is much easier than most books I read. Eight grade level, maybe? In a blurb, Junot Díaz calls the prose "spare" and "elegant."* I would use somewhat different words. Plain, simple. There are a few nicer touches, but not many. Picked at random (p.107):

"Murad sat down on the divan. His eyes were on the TV, but his mind wandered. Lamya was moving on with her life - she had a job and now she was getting married." Etc. Another word comes to mind - dull.

The plain prose unfortunately extends to the voices. Different chapters feature different characters. All of the men sound the same. All of the women sound the same. The women do sound different than the men, which is good. But, with flat prose like this, how could it be otherwise? What room does the writer have to differentiate her characters?

Now the good. The novel begins on a tiny boat - illegal immigrants from Morocco, on their way to Spain. We move back to find out how four of those immigrants got on that boat. Then we move forward to see what happened to them afterwards. Now, here's a lot of room for a writer. Lalami creates characters from many backgrounds - a disaffected intellectual, an abused wife, a restless husband, a mildly corrupt education administrator.

Lalami is clever with the structure. In the first "before" story, the woman who immigrates is actually a minor character. But through the story of a family she knows, we learn everything we need about why she immigrates. In the "after" section, we get her story directly.

This variety is the heart of the book. Lots of different Moroccans in lots of different situations. I wish that the stories were told in a more interesting way, and that the characters had more individuality. But as a quick tour of Morocco, it was perfect, efficient, full of information. Some of it may be wrong - I'll test it against my own experience, and against other books - but the novel gives me a lot to work with. I would have a hard time recommending the book to anyone not specifically interested in the subject. For me, it was time well spent. So thanks, Rohan!

* The blurb lowers my opinion of Junot Díaz. I have not read him, and am now less likely to do so. A writer interested in good writing would not use so many clichés, even while blurbing his friend's book.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Elizabeth Spencer's Five Favorite Southern Novels

As if by internet magic, Elizabeth Spencer appears in the Wall Street Journal a day after I write about her.* She provides a list of her Five Favorite Southern Novels.

Let's see. On Agate Hill by Lee Smith. Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman. Ernest Gaines, A Gathering of Old Men; Edward P. Jones, The Known World; Padgett Powell, Edisto. I have read, let me check my fingers, none of them. I've read other books by Percy and Gaines, so that's something.

The thing I like about this list is that it's personal. See, my own list would go like this: Huckleberry Finn, As I Lay Dying, Delta Wedding - no, I'm going to stop. My list is boring. The books are not boring. They're fantastic. But my list is boring. The usual suspects. No surprises at all. For proof, see the recent Oxofrd American Best Southern Novels of All Time poll (1-10 - I've read 8 of 10, 11+).

This is one of my doubts about Appreciationism. I worry that I'm too susceptible to received opinion. I'm told books are great, and when I read them I discover that they're great. Perhaps my judgment is less independent, my thinking less critical, than I like to imagine. Not that something like the Oxford American poll doesn't have its use, especially for people new to the topic. It's a quick way to see the lay of the land.

Maybe Spencer is actually listing her Five Favorites That Aren't on Everybody Else's List. Or maybe she's cusséd and cantankerous. Regardless, her list is pretty interesting.

Hat tip to R.T., who pointed out the list to me.

* Magic or marketing. This is obviously tied into the reissue of The Southern Woman.

Friday, September 11, 2009

They were all too graceful to be true - the serious pleasures of The Light in the Piazza

So I have a theory that I in fact had heard of Elizabeth Spencer, author of the best-selling novella The Light in the Piazza, but had relegated her to the category of "things I don't need to know about" out of some sort of middlebrow snobbery. Best-seller = a disdainful sniff and a disapproving frown. I don't remember being so snobby, but who knows. Regardless, The Light in the Piazza is the best thing in The Southern Woman, a light toned, comic, but quite serious study in the ethics of motherhood.

Margaret Johnson is on a long Italian vacation with her daughter who, well:

"Due to an accident years ago, she had the mental age of a child of ten. But anyone on earth, meeting her for the first time, would have found this incredible. Mrs. Johnson had managed in many tactful ways to explain her daughter to young men without wounding them." (260)

But Italy is different, Italy is a magical place. The daughter collides with a fine young Italian fellow:

"There went the straw hat she had bought in Fiesole. It sailed off prettily, its broad red ribbon a quick mark in the air. The young man was after it; he contrived to knock it still farther away, once and again, though the day was windless; his final success was heroic." (259)

Not that I read fiction for the punctuation, but the semicolons and commas in that last sentence cannot be improved. That is a well-paced sentence.

The rules are different in Italy, and different for tourists. Perhaps Margaret does not have to be so vigilant about scaring off the young Fabrizio Naccarelli. It's not serious. But as the love affair becomes more serious, the mother can't seem to find the opportunity to tell the truth, to end things.

Spencer deftly mixes the mother's own psychology with her love for her daughter. She is obviously (right) wrong not to tell Fabrizio and his parents about her daughter, especially when the possibility of marriage appears. But what if the rules in Italy really are different - for example, about what a marriage means?

The mother wants to assure her daughter's happiness. Is that a selfless or a selfish impulse? Does she want to get rid of her difficult daughter, or keep her for herself, forever? Spencer keeps tangling the issue, and the mother's decisions, sometimes passive, sometimes quite active, seemed completely natural to me.

The book jacket of The Southern Woman says that The Light in the Piazza has sold "more than two million copies worldwide." Good. I'd recommend it to just about anyone.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Elizabeth Spencer surprised me.

While I'm wandering outside the 19th century, how about I write a little about Elizabeth Spencer?

The story so far: A year ago, I read a story (PDF) in The Hudson Review by Mississippi writer Elizabeth Spencer. It was in the mode that short stories mostly come in now, nothing fancy, but it was sharp, insightful, good. Who is this unknown writer, I thought, this new talent? The discovery that she is 88 years old and the author of nine novels and a pile of stories fazed me a bit. And one of those novels has sold two million copies, and was made into a movie (in 1962) and a hit musical (in 2005!). Well, this is how we learn, isn't it?

The Modern Library has recently reissued its 2001 collection of 26 of her stories (plus that best selling novella). It's called The Southern Woman, narrow but accurate.* The stories are about Southern women of all ages and backgrounds, getting into trouble, wondering what to do next, worrying about their families, wandering around, settling down.

Spencer turns out to have many modes and a gently experimental side, so some of the stories have rough edges or perhaps don't quite work. On the other hand, the collection has a lot of variety, not just in the subjects of the stories, but in the ways they're told. I rarely read more than one story in a day, but a little bit in I was always eager to pick the book up again the next day - I was sure I would find something new.

"Ship Island" is a good example, subtitled "The Story of a Mermaid," about a restless young woman working out who she is, sexually, socially, intellectually. She's alive, scratchy, weird. It's not just the character, though, but Spencer's language, and the constant water and sea references, that turn the story into something out of the ordinary.

I think the best stories are as good as the best of Eudora Welty or Katharine Anne Porter or Big Bill Faulkner. Maybe not as good as the best of Flannery O'Connor. One thing Spencer has that they don't is Italy, where she lived for five years. In the stories, it becomes the alternative to the South. See "The White Azalea," about how Theresa Stubblefield's relatives in Tuxapoka, Alabama can't seem to leave her alone, even on her vacation in Rome. That best selling novella, The Light in the Piazza, is set in Italy, too, in Florence.

An Olivia de Havilland movie, a Broadway musical, two million copies, I mentioned all that? It's only about 50 pages, so it's included in The Southern Woman. I wasn't expecting much from it, certainly not that it would be the best thing in the book. I'll finish up with it tomorrow.

* Just reissued. I read the 2001 version.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Please clue me in to good Moroccan books

Ma femme and I are thinking of going to Morocco is January. She has been doing the reading, not me. I do not, it turns out, know where to start.

When I made my Senegalese reading list, I was pretty ignorant. But not as ignorant as I am about Moroccan literature. There are degrees. When I look at the bibliography of Tahar ben Jelloun, a big deal, I know that, the titles mean absolutely nothing to me. The Sand Child (1985) and The Sacred Night (1987) have been translated into the most languages, so maybe that's a clue. I don't know. An unusual number of the most famous books are memoirs, which may mean something.

As I have noticed with other young literatures, Moroccan books are generally short, so the cost of just diving in is low. That's what ma femme has been doing. She has not found the masterpieces yet. Plenty of good books, yes, but nothing really great. I think her favorite so far has been Tahir Shah's In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams (2008), in which Shah mixes Moroccan storytelling traditions with his own family story (he's the son of Sufi expert Idries Shah).

Sometimes, she has been more unfortunate. Stay away from Edith Wharton's In Morocco (1920) if you want to retain respect for that writer. Her grand pronouncements about "the Oriental mind" are best buried and forgotten.

If anyone has suggestions about good Moroccan books, they would be most appreciated. Books by Moroccans, or books about Morocco. If they're really, really good, that would be even better.

One disclaimer: feel free to recommend, advocate, praise, and sing to the heavens books by William Burroughs and Paul Bowles. But I ain't readin' 'em. Not for his trip.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Now I want to visit Egypt, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan... - I may not be reading this book correctly

The book is Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine (2009) by ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan. Here's the author's website. The title, but not the subtitle, suggests that this is book is a relative of The Omnivore's Dilemma and similar books. Third cousins, maybe.

Nabhan's book is a hybrid of biography, travel, bioscience, and advocacy. The biography is of a great Russian scientist, of whom I had never heard, the botanist Nikolay Vavilov (1887-1943). That last date should give a clue as to his end - what important Russian died of natural causes in 1943? Vavilov, who spent his life working on the science of food supply, was deliberately starved to death by Stalin.

Vavilov's story could hardly be more interesting. Because Vavilov traveled the world studying agriculture and  searching for seeds, wild and domestic, something not so different from what the author himself does, Nabhan mixes accounts of Vavilov's expeditions with his own travel to the same regions. As a result, I added a few places to my "To Go" list.

Specifically, Wahat Siwa, a Berber oasis in Egypt that now has 20,000 inhabitants. It's known for its variety of date palms, among other things. Lots of tourists go there now, since a paved road was built. I want to be one of them.

Then there are the Ethiopian highlands. I guess I have always wanted to go there, though, at least as long as I have known anything about Ethiopian culture. Nabhan, visiting an open air market under huge, shady trees, writes that he feels like he is visiting the original market, a cute conceit.

The valleys of Tajikistan, those were new to me, though. And the apple orchards of Kazakhstan. No, not the orchards, but the forests, the forests of wild apple and pear trees. Nabhan writes "[t]he fragrance of the Kazakh forest was unlike any I had ever known, for the pervasive smell of ripening and rotting apples and pears filled my nostrils." (113)

I don't think the point of the book was to encourage international travel, but that's the effect it had on me. Kazakhstanis - please preserve your apple forests. I want to see them.

Nabhan's prose and storytelling are functional. They're fine, nothing special. The book has a foreword by Ken Wilson, Executive Director of the Christensen Fund, that is so badly written I sometimes suspected parody. But I learned something - whatever your skill as a writer, commission a forward by someone much worse. Makes you look good.

I read this book because my sister-in-law thinks I should read more about science, and also because I agree with her. But every book like this I read means one novel of poetry book that I don't. That's this omnivore's dilemma.

Hey, speaking of travel: Morocco.

Friday, September 4, 2009

What colour are ash-buds in March?

"Now, what colour are ash-buds in March?"

Is the man going mad? thought I. He is very like Don Quixote.

"What colour are they, I say?" repeated he vehemently.

"I am sure I don't know, sir," said I, with the meekness of ignorance.

"I knew you didn't. No more did I--an old fool that I am!--till this young man comes and tells me. Black as ash-buds in March. And I've lived all my life in the country; more shame for me not to know. Black: they are jet-black, madam." And he went off again, swinging along to the music of some rhyme he had got hold of.

We're in Chapter IV of Cranford, "A Visit to an Old Bachelor." The "young man" who comes along is actually Alfred Tennyson; the line about the ash-buds is from a long, dullish poem called "The Gardener's Daughter; or, The Pictures."

Gaskell is delineating her method here. The art of the novel, or this novel, is in the accumulation of tiny details. But Gaskell is not Tennyson. All of her descriptive writing is about people, and not about how they look, but about their behavior, and their things - their food and furniture, and clothes, always their clothes. Nature is for the poets.

The poetry enthusiast wants to read a poem to the ladies, "and Miss Pole encouraged him in his proposal, I thought, because she wished me to hear his beautiful reading, of which she had boasted; but she afterwards said it was because she had got to a difficult part of her crochet, and wanted to count her stitches without having to talk." Pretty sharply observed.

Entire passages are devoted to hats, and the vulgarity of the name of the local doctor (Mr. Hoggins, "but, as Miss Jenkyns said, if he changed it to Piggins it would not be much better"), and the difficulty of using a particularly small set of sugar-tongs, evidence of miserliness: "Very delicate was the china, and very old the plate, very thin the bread and butter, and very small the lumps of sugar" (Ch. VIII).

Isn't "very" one of those empty words that a good writer is supposed to suppress? I guess a great writer is allowed to use it.

I didn't know the colour of the ash-buds myself. I'm not as good a poetry reader as that farmer, and probably would not have noticed that detail in Tennyson. But I'll remember it now, along with a hundred other marvels from Cranford.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cranford in 1853, a great year for the English novel

Cranford was one of three major English novels published in 1853,* along with Bleak House and Villette. Should I add Gaskell's own Ruth to the list? It's still read, at least, which is more than I can say for any other English novels from that year. Feel free to correct me.

First, then, 1853, was a banner year for the English novels. Four that are still read, that is extremely rare. Only a few years in the 19th century can make that claim (miraculous 1818 has five). The 19th century English novel is one of the great achievements of human civilization, but that doesn't mean that there were three good ones every year.

Especially, setting Ruth aside, since I ain't done read it, three as good as these, which happen to be my favorite Dickens, new favorite Charlotte Brontë, and favorite Elizabeth Gaskell. Also, almost my only Gaskell, but given the nature of her other books, I bet it will remain my favorite.

All three books share tricky, innovative first person narrators. Bleak House's Esther Summerson is perhaps not so tricky herself - a little tricky, though - but she shares the novel with an omniscient third person narrator, a structure that works like a charm and solves any number of Dickensian problems. Dickens never used it again; nor did anyone else that I can think of. I have no idea why not.

The narrator of Villette, being a Brontë character, is, of course, some kind of supernatural spirit, an imp or an elf or something. Brontë uses Lucy Snowe to push her novel in some strange Modernist directions that I found appealing. Whatever it is, there's no other Victorian novel like it, although Lucy does resemble Cranford's Mary Smith in a number of ways. They both stay in the background, or say they do, and both have delightful, slightly cruel senses of humor.

But where Villette is very much Lucy's story, the narrator's attempt to exercise control of her own life, Mary Smith's function really is to tell us the story of the Cranford ladies. She intrudes into the story but is never quite a complete character. The real story belongs to some of the other characters, so Mary remains a device, to some degree, a necessary and useful means of telling a certain story. This almost sounds like a complaint, but it's not. Cranford has just as much of its narrator as it needs.

All right, that's my little digression into literary history. Interest in literary history is my bugbear fault. One of them.

* Bleak House and Cranford had been appearing earlier as serials.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Cranford and the strong female character

Every now and again I come across someone praising a book or movie because it features a "strong female character." I've never quite seen the inherent virtue in the notion. Many of my favorite novels feature nothing but weak characters, male or female. Weak, soft, foolish, pathetic, thin-skinned, vain, ludicrous, misguided, lunatic, stupid, and many other wonderful features. Wonderful because they're interesting.

Cranford begins with a strong female character, an inflexible tyrant, Deborah (pronounced, she insists, DehBORah), Jenkyns, ruler of the Cranford spinsters. That story is, in a way, about finding some softness behind her strength. After Chapter Two, Deborah passes away, leaving behind her helpless, simple, younger sister Matty. Matty, a  type specimen of the weak female character, subclass Victorian, turns out to be the unlikely heroine of the novel. I'm still a bit amazed with how much Gaskell does with her.

Near the end of the book, Matty loses her income, almost all from investments in a mismanaged bank. "'I shall lose one hundred and forty-nine pounds thirteen shillings and fourpence a year; I shall only have thirteen pounds a year left'" (Ch. XIII). All her life Matty has been dependent on the guidance of men, and her domineering sister; at this moment they have failed her, completely.

Matty, a rector's daughter, has been educated to do nothing. The narrator, who, as I have mentioned can be a bit sharp, runs down Matty's deficiencies for us: she cannot play piano, draw, sew anything fancy, or use globes, all useful for a governess. I should point out that the narrator forgives Matty for the globe business, since she doesn't understand them herself. Matty has trouble reading long words, spells terribly, and is confused by the act of making change. She is fifty-eight years old.

But it turns out that Matty can do one thing: suffer, endure, retrench, turn inward. She becomes to everyone's surprise a fine Stoic, based fundamentally on her kindness to others. And others respond with kindness. This is where Cranford turns out to be, however different the tone, a close relative of the Gaskell short stories I read in June. Acts of kindness, particularly between women, seem to be fundamental to Gaskell's world.

Like Villette, one of the challenges of Cranford is figuring out which subjects are open for mockery and which are not. In Cranford, poverty, true love, religious feeling - our clever narrator does not joke about those. Nor about Matty's endurance. Matty was protected from the world, and for what? There's a genuine tragedy at the heart of Cranford.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Indiscretion was my bugbear fault - Cranford's all-seeing narrator - Oh, gentility!

Cranford is the story of a group of spinsters and widows in a small town near Manchester. The men in the town - at least those "above a certain rent" - have all disappeared, off to Manchester or India or Heaven. The women are not exactly elderly, but are certainly not young. Except for one key character, the novel's narrator, Mary Smith.

Mary is a natural anthropologist. She is not actually of Cranford, but is an outsider, a family friend of the Jenkyns sisters. She visits for various lengths of time, lending a hand, going to the teas and card parties, where she stores away every ridiculous detail, which she then writes up and sends to a magazine published by Charles Dickens. One of the many arbitrary rules of Cranford society is that Dickens is too modern and vulgar to read, or at least to tell anyone you've read, so Mary Smith can betray every secret in safety, apparently. And as she says in Chapter XII, "Indiscretion was my bugbear fault. Everybody has a bugbear fault..."

The humor of the book is Mary's. Her insight is keen and her wit wicked, even mean sometimes. Key to her character is that she is barely in the book. She is present, she observes; she laughs, but silently. She sees the ludicrous side of almost everything. About the ladies' snobbery, their contempt for trade, their arbitrary rules about what is acceptable, and their hypocrisies, she is brutal. I don't think she means to be. She can't help herself. It's how she sees the world.

Late in the book, a character arrives who is a natural and gifted teller of tall tales and baloney. He tells a credulous lady that while hunting in the Himalayas, he was so high up that he shot a cherubim. She wonders if that might be sacrilege; he thinks she might be right. Mary knows him for what he is, immediately. And he knows that she knows. And she knows that he knows etc. etc. They're spiritual kin, even if her stories are all "true."

"Visiting," Chapter VII, is ur-Cranford, perfect. No men, no action, no story. Miss Betty Barker, who used to makes caps, and is thus a bit low on the social scale, has invited the ladies over for tea. Miss Barker does not quite know the rules, so she serves too much food, although it somehow all disappears. "However, Mrs. Jamieson was kindly indulgent to Miss Barker's want of knowledge of high life; and, to spare her feelings, ate three large pieces of seed-cake, with a placid, ruminating expression of countenance, not unlike a cow's."

Then, after cards, there's more food. "Another tray! 'Oh, gentility!' thought I, 'can you endure this last shock?'" Yet the oysters, jellies, and cherry-brandy all disappear as well.

And somehow, all a-scatter, I omitted the bit where Miss Matty accidentally wears two hats, and the whole discussion of Mr. ffoulkes, who "always looked down on capital letters, and said they belonged to lately invented families," but finds happiness when he meets Mrs. ffarington, "and it was all owing to her two little ffs."

I said that Mary see almost everything as ludicrous. Almost - I'll try to write about that tomorrow. Cranford is actually a pretty serious book.

I forgot to mention that at Age 30+... A Lifetime of Books, it's Cranford Read-a-Long month! The host plans to read one chapter a day, if she can restrain herself, which somehow will take twenty-seven days (perhaps she has the BBC-related Cranford Chronicles volume).