Monday, July 25, 2011

Tickets, money, passport! - away for awhile

That's right, a quote from Absolutely Fabulous, an antique.

I'm away for two weeks, and my schedule after that is chaotic, but I'll write something.  Put up vacation snaps.  Maybe review the in-flight magazine.

No, that's where I differ from Patsy and Eddy:  "Tickets, money, passport, books! Tickets, money, passport, books!"

Friday, July 22, 2011

Books were of no use. Thinking was of no use. - not writing about Middlemarch

If I were not going on vacation next week, I would likely spend it writing about Middlemarch (1871-2), puzzling over it, whining about it.  Perhaps I would be wise enough to minimize the whining, but a week of posts would be a struggle, and a good challenge.  Middlemarch is a complex book, the most complex Victorian novel I have read.

I keep comparing it, for better and worse, with a couple of its peers, Madame Bovary (1856) and Anna Karenina (1875).  The novels of Flaubert and Eliot are like theatrical foils – Flaubert’s exquisitely worked surface makes Eliot’s sentences look plain; Eliot’s moral sensibility makes Flaubert look as hollow as I fear he is.  Anna Karenina serves as a nice fusion – rich in sensory detail, yet ethically serious.

Middlemarch and Madame Bovary are complex in such different ways.  Speaking roughly, Flaubert works from the outside in – the rich and surprising descriptions of objects and places create a set of images around the characters which become part of the structure of the novel.  Eliot moves from the inside out, not just thoroughly describing the thoughts and feelings of her characters but employing recurring images and metaphors that are associated with the characters but are not part of the physical world of the novel.

For example, Eliot’s varied water metaphor:

In this way, the early months of marriage often are times of critical tumult – whether that of a shrimp-pool or of deeper waters – which afterwards subsides into cheerful peace. (Ch. 20)

Eliot is describing the early days of Dorothea Brooke’s marriage to Casaubon.  The character is in an apartment in Rome; the startling shrimp-pool is not something Dorothea has seen or thought of.  It belongs entirely to the narrator, who repeatedly returns to water when she is spending time with Dorothea, and who uses water to link scenes that are scattered throughout the novel.  Or so it appears to me – as if I have tracked through them!

In Madame Bovary, the shrimp-pool would be forbidden – the metaphors have to come from the outside, from something the characters experience.  Thus, the recurring horse theme in Madame Bovary, which, like Eliot’s water theme, creates surprising correspondences among otherwise disconnected scenes.  But Flaubert’s horses are external, “real,” while the water is all in the imagination of Eliot the narrator.

Both devices for converting imagery into structure are artful, and both can be as complex as the writer can make them.  Somehow, though, I am more comfortable with the sensory images, with Flaubert.  More experience with that kind of fiction, I guess.  I do not understand the supposedly intrusive Eliot narrator so well, how she functions.

That narrator, the wise and serious aphoristic Eliot, also violates every Flaubertian principle, and thank goodness.  The last thing I want to read is the wisdom of Gustave Flaubert.  How appalling!  George Eliot, unlike almost every other writer in the history of written thought, actually seems to be wise, to possess not just insights and intelligence but wisdom.  I have to reach back to Goethe or Montaigne or someone like that.  The incessantly ironic intrusions of Thackeray are no help.  Strike ironic – Eliot can be ironic.  The outrageous lies and false humility of Thackeray’s intrusions are not the right model.

What else might I write about?  I would complain about the dialogue, that there is too much of it.  This should be a week on its own, my indictment of dialogue, which is hardly a problem limited to George Eliot.  But (every complaint would be followed by “but”) Eliot constructs a series of scenes that are almost choral, minor characters discussing the events of the novel, that looks new to me.  I saw hints of it in earlier Eliot novels.  How are they used?  That would be something to think about.

Wisdom, narrator, imagery, dialogue, choral scenes, structure.  What else?  The unusual branching plots, maybe.  These are the topics I might have written about, or perhaps will write about when I re-read Middlemarch, whenever that might be.

My title is wrenched from Chapter 48.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ballooning with the dummy in the top hat, or Around the World in Eighty Days

Because of movies, mostly, there are a few books that should now come with warnings, prominently displayed:  Not Like the Movie.  The back covers should feature specific “anti-spoilers.”  Frankenstein is the most obvious example, I think.  The perplexed reader waits, in a fidget, for the appearance of hunchbacked Igor and “Fire bad!” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz” but instead reads about the monster reading The Sorrows of Young Werther.  That’s my favorite part of the book, at least.  Regardless, the innovations and improvements of James Whale are nowhere to be found.

Anyone read Carlos Collodi’s 1883 The Adventures of Pinocchio?  It’s a fascinating book, not merely frightening like parts of the Walt Disney version but quite grim.  The big shocker, though, is the – no, I don’t want to say.  Leave it at this: the use of the cricket is very different.  Very, very different.


Reading Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) recently, I came across another one.  Phileas Fogg, a wealthy sufferer from autism, “that dummy in a top hat,” (Nabokov, The Defense, p. 34), is tangled up in an expensive bet:  can he travel around the world, point to point, in eighty days?  A number of forms of transportation will be required – certainly, different boats and steamships, and trains, and because there will inevitably be complications along the way, other more clever and surprising vehicles.  I have never seen a  film version of the novel, but I had somehow picked up the idea that there would be a balloon.  Where did I get that idea? (Poster from Wikipedia).

Here’s the balloon:

Still, some means must be found to cross the Atlantic on a boat, unless by balloon, - which would have been venturesome, besides not being capable of being put in practice. (Ch. 32)

I’m reading the 1873 George Towle translation; perhaps the infelicities of that sentence are his fault.  Separate issue.  It was amusing to carry along, while reading, a niggling feeling that a balloon was supposed  to appear.  It could have, at any moment, even at the very end.  The train to London breaks down, but, look, there’s a balloonist!  But no.

I know that Verne had written an earlier novel about ballooning (Five Weeks in a Balloon, 1863), so perhaps he was sick of the subject.  The variety would have been nice, though.  I was startled by how dull most of the obstacles and solutions were in Around the World, which is nominally an adventure novel.  Fogg mostly solves his problems by spending money.  The ship he needed already sailed?  Hire another!  The novel is not much of a demonstration of the ingenuity of Jules Verne.   He is generally more interested in steamship schedules than in exciting incidents. Even the ending is stolen directly from Edgar Allan Poe.

As if I cared whether or not there was a balloon, or a rocket ship, or a tricycle!  Just get me around the world, Jules – and that, he did.  Still, a warning to adventure seekers:  Around the World in Eighty Days is more a classic of trainspotting than of adventure, and there ain’t no balloon.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Traveling with Ivan Goncharov

The Frigate Pallada (1858) is Ivan Goncharov’s enormous account of a Russian diplomatic expedition to Japan on which he was secretary to the commander of the warship in the book’s title.  The travelogue simply follows Goncharov’s route – the Baltic Sea, England, Madeira, Cape Town, and so on.  Goncharov’s activities are often described in minute detail; fortunately, he is a skilled writer with a strong sense of humor, curious about the world but deeply concerned about his own comforts.

Why, oh why is it impossible to get good tea in China?  Every kind of tea grows in this country; the problem is with the word “good”…  What the English call good tea or simply tea (it is all the same to them) is… a tea that stings the tongue and your palate like almost everything the English eat and drink.  They like their food to be a scrubbing brush that combs your throat.  And they require their tea to be like their Indian sauces and peppers, that is, some sort of poison. (352)

Goncharov looks forward to the day when the English learn to simmer their tea, not “boil [it] like cabbage, as they do now.”

Goncharov’s exact role as secretary is not clear to me, presumably because that sort of detail did not belong in a public book.  He seems to have written an entirely separate official journal.  Thus, some of the diplomatic details are hazy.

Nevertheless, I thought the book really came to life once the fleet arrived in Nagasaki harbor.  Perhaps I am just succumbing to the exoticism of Japan, Shanghai, and Manila.  Or perhaps my ignorance was key – I knew nothing about 1850s Manila, for example, so even the banal details were fascinating. 

More likely, though, is that once the Japanese diplomatic mission begins, the book finds a new narrative structure, the Russian attempts to deal with Japanese obstacles and deception, one more surprising and original than simple travel.  It helps that Goncharov finds the Japanese intransigence entirely reasonable and understandable.  It probably also helps me that the Russian perspective is itself unfamiliar.  Commodore Perry was in Edo bay at the exact same time, getting all of the credit for “opening” Japan.

Oblomov, the novel that made Goncharov famous, was published a year after The Frigate Pallada.  A side benefit of reading Pallada first is that I will not be tempted to confuse the slothful Oblomov with his creator, not after reading how Goncharov covers just part of his 8,000 mile return to Moscow across Siberia!

I omitted Goncharov’s first tome from my short list of Long Russian BooksThe Frigate Pallada seemed second tier, at least in English.  In Chapter 2 of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Defense, it is casually identified as Russian children’s reading, although the neurotic child in question finds it “boring,” preferring the “exact and relentlessly unfolding pattern” of Sherlock Holmes and Around the World in Eighty Days.

I read the 1987 St. Martin’s Press edition of The Frigate Pallada, the translation a work of love by Klaus Goetze.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

No need to describe the general horror. - "A Disgraceful Affair," comic minor Dostoevsky

I have a vacation coming up, so this is going to be a hodgepodge week.  I am unsure whether today’s post is hodge or podge.

“A Disgraceful Affair” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1862.  Let’s see.  Short – 55 pages as presented  in Great Short Works of Dostoevsky, tr. Norah Gottlieb.  Minor, I guess, in that it’s Big Ideas are social, not existential.  Funny, dang funny.

Ivan Ilyitch, a high-ranking civil servant with democratic ideals, stumbles upon the wedding of one of his sub-sub-subordinates and decides (he has had a bit too much champagne) that crashing the party would be not a breach of etiquette but a demonstration of his noble love of mankind and disregard of rank.  Ivan Ilyitch’s entry (brawn is like a jellied meat gravy):

Although a tallow candle end or some sort of nightlight was burning somewhere in the corner, Ivan Ilyitch was not saved from stepping with his left foot, clad in a galosh, into a dish of brawn which had been put out to set.  Ivan Ilyitch bent down and, glancing round with curiosity, saw that there were two other similar dishes with aspic, as well as two moulds evidently full of blancmange.  The squashed brawn rather disconcerted him and for one fleeting moment he considered the idea of slipping away immediately.  But he decided this would be unworthy of him. (220)

With a start like this, I expected the bride to end up face down in the wedding cake.  What else happens in wacky wedding comedies?  The subordinate, the groom, becomes paralyzed by the presence of his boss, unable to break decorum.  The other guests become drunk and hostile; Ivan Ilyitch, after an incompetent toast, accidentally drinks himself into a stupor – he is not used to vodka.

He sank onto a chair as if he were fainting, put both hands on the table and dropped his head on to them, straight into a plate of blancmange.  No need to describe the general horror.  After a minute he got up, evidently wanting to go away, staggered, tripped over the leg of a chair, fell on the floor with full force and began to snore… (245, ellipses in original)

Hey, my guess was close!  “A Disgraceful Affair” is in the genre of The Office and other comedies of social humiliation; Ivan Ilyitch might be well played by Ricky Gervais.

In longer works, Dostoevsky employs many voices and points of view to tell his stories.  He has less room here, but when Ivan Ilyitch collapses, he switches to the groom and travels back in time a bit, retelling the entire story, demonstrating why the boss’s generously meant but disastrous visit is even worse than it first appeared.  I cringed while I laughed.

A Dostoevsky skeptic, or ignoramus, I enjoyed “A Disgraceful Affair” as much as any Dostoevsky I know.  It lacks the chaos, hysteria, and glimpses into the abyss that his best readers love so much, but it effectively isolates Dostoevsky’s enormous comic gift.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Look first or think first - both are honorable and productive

I’m going to steal something from Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn: What Happens after They’re Built (1994) and not write about the book itself beyond this paragraph.  Brand argues that architects should concentrate not just on how buildings are used but how use changes over time, and he suggests how this could happen .  The book is filled with fascinating photographs of houses, factories, and other buildings transforming from one thing to another.  It is very much in the spirit of John Ruskin, of The Stones of Venice, although the prose is entirely conversational and non-technical.   It seems to have already become a classic in the literature of architecture, and is easy to recommend.

I don’t want to follow that thought.  I want this one:

To completely reunderstand buildings would require both of the fundamental approaches to knowledge – observation and theory.  I called them “Look first” and “Think first”… [T]here were two types of people in the world – those who deal with something new by really looking at it, devoid of preconception, versus those who prefer to form hypotheses first and then study the thing to see which ideas were right.  Both are honorable and productive. (211)

Although he uses different labels than I do, Brand has identified one of my most important frames, a tool I use all the time to think about writers and books.  The “Think first” writers are the conceptualists and theorizers, Alfred Jarry and Gustave Flaubert, writers whose works demonstrate their ideas.  The “Look first” authors are those who learn by doing, who have to write in order to discover their ideas.  I do not think I am distorting Brand too badly here – for writers of this temperament, writing is a major part of how they look.

Charles Dickens is the 19th century exemplar of the “Look first” author.  He developed his unique comic voice very quickly, but for every other aspect of novel-writing – characterization, plotting, rhetoric, and so on – his development is visible in his novels, from novel to novel, sometimes even within a single novel.  It is no coincidence that Dickens was the master of serialization.*  I am recycling the example of Dickens, but it is the best one I know.

Why do I bother with these distinctions?  Neurosis is a good answer, but that’s not it.  Understanding the temperament of the writer (or of the book – perhaps writers change from book to book) can provide an entryway to a work.  Conceptual novelists, for example,  often abandon standard components of the novel.  It is the “Think firsters” who are most likely to do without sympathetic characters, or clever plots, or common sense.  The concept they are working with is often explicitly literary, a response to earlier literature.  The writer is not incompetent, but is deliberately isolating the parts of the novel.  The “Look firsters” generally worry less about literature, or about the formal aesthetic properties of fiction, and more about the world around them, the part of the world not contained in books.

Perhaps it is more accurate to imagine a continuum.  Every successful conceptual novelist has to produce an actual novel, not simply describe his idea for a novel.  Every successful exploring novelist has to discover something along the way, something that gives form and meaning to his journey.  All of this is much easier to apply to art history, where the distinctions are often much clearer, where the difference between Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne, great innovators of opposite temperaments, is clear enough, without having to resort to, I don’t know, Rembrandt and Yves Klein.  Literature has been fortunate (although poetry has been less fortunate) to have avoided many of the conceptual extremes of 20th century visual art.  Books consisting of a single word repeated ten million times exist, but most conceptual writers still produce novels that are recognizable as novels and poems that behave like poems.  Weird novels, weird poems, but still.

I do not know if this is clearer than any other attempt I have made on this subject, but it is surely useful to define my terms once in a while, especially since I am, on the continuum, a “Look firster” who wishes he were a “Think firster,” a muddled and even disastrous combination.

*  Flaubert serialized Madame Bovary, too, but not before he had written every word of it.

Friday, July 15, 2011

I am only giving you the world's opinion - challenging Trollope; complacent Trollope

I was not really planning to write about Doctor Thorne for five full days.  Because I have so much Trollope ahead of me, or so I hope, and because Trollope novels are not so extraordinarily varied, I should hoard my ideas.  Or, on the contrary, I should feel reassured that Trollope alone will provide an endless source of material for Wuthering Expectations.  Just wait until you see my ten part series on Orley Farm.  At least three of the posts will be on the fictional treatment and metaphorical meaning of 19th century manuring techniques.

Still, I am wondering what to make of a couple of passages, something following from that outstanding chapter I wrote about yesterday.  The next chapter is titled “What the World Says about Blood,” and it states the central ethical problem of Doctor Thorne as clearly as I can remember.  The speaker is our hero Frank’s father; Porlock is a cousin who is heir to an earldom:

"You must take it as you find it, Frank.  I only say that such is the fact.  If Porlock were to marry the daughter of a shoeblack, without a farthing, he would make a mésalliance; but if the daughter of the shoeblack had half a million of money, nobody would dream of saying so.  I am stating no opinion of my own: I am only giving you the world's opinion."

I have no doubt that Trollope is observing his world accurately.  The old order is not collapsing, but is already gone, and only the ideology of blood and breeding remains.  Trollope’s characters must wend their way through the obsolete cant.  Poor Augusta is trapped in it; our protagonists defeat it.

What I wonder is, did Trollope’s readers, his contemporaries, agree with this?  Did they argue with it?  Were they challenged by Trollope – were they surprised into sympathy, or was this more of a pander – you and I, dear readers, have moved beyond those snobby dinosaurs who are bothered by this sort of thing.

In the end, the young couple succeed ethically – love trumps money – and receive their novelistic rewards.  Young Frank Gresham will not have to sully himself by becoming an attorney or managing a farm (heaven forbid if he actually did any farming!).  He will be able to devote his time to his hounds and horses and perhaps a dab of politics.  Frank has matured admirably – I saw it with my own eyes, so to speak, by reading Doctor Thorne – but I have no idea what value that brings.  He ends the novel a better person.  And then?

Doctor Thorne features a stonemason who becomes a wealthy railroad builder, a baronet, and even, very briefly, a member of Parliament.  He and his son do not become better people. This is his widow:

"This comes of their barro-niting," she continued.  "If they had let him alone, he would have been here now, and so would the other one.  Why did they do it? why did they do it?  Ah, doctor! people such as us should never meddle with them above us.  See what has come of it; see what has come of it!"

I see no reason to take Lady Scatcherd’s lament at face value, as a deliberate claim by Trollope that folks shouldn’t get above their raisin’, but I do wonder how far Trollope’s class criticisms go, if the queen can marry a jockey.  Not that I want Trollope to be a radical.  Rohan Maitzen describes his stories as “the small-scale battles of everyday life,” and I only wish that every time and place had a military historian as skilled as Anthony Trollope.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Augusta could not serve God and Mammon - a Doctor Thorne mini-novel

Near the end of Doctor Thorne, in Chapter 38, there is an unusual epistolary chapter.  Only three letters, actually, and what is truly unusual* is that Trollope draws attention to the letters, “a mode of novel-writing which used to be much in vogue, but which has now gone out of fashion,” one that is “very expressive when in good hands.”  Trollope fears, prophetically, that he will lapse into “commonplace narrative” before the chapter ends.

The chapter is almost a mini-novel, by which I mean it could easily (easily for Trollope!) have been blown up to a volume or three.  Augusta has received a proposal from a well-to-do attorney.  She asks her cousin, the daughter of an earl, if it is proper to marry so far below her rank.  The cousin says no.  Augusta submits.  Those are the three letters.  Then there is a big twist, and then a small twist.  It’s a good story.  Pitiful, but also a bit, what do I want to say.  Savage.

Augusta genuinely wants to marry the attorney, or so a reader should infer.  “I don’t wish to speak at all of my own feelings” is what she actually writes.  The narrator, though, can read between the lines:

Poor Augusta prayed very hard for her husband; but she prayed to a bosom that on this subject was as hard as a flint, and she prayed in vain.  Augusta Gresham was twenty-two, Lady Amelia de Courcy was thirty-four; was it likely that Lady Amelia would permit Augusta to marry, the issue having thus been left in her hands?

She prayed; her calm and careful letter is a prayer!  A few pages later, after Lady Amelia’s cold-hearted reply, Trollope returns to the religious metaphor:

Augusta could not serve God and Mammon.  She must either be true to the god of her cousin's idolatry, and remain single, or serve the Mammon of her own inclinations, and marry Mr. Gazebee.

Mammon here is not money, but love, following your own heart (“[S]he would have loved with that sort of love which it was in her power to bestow,” the narrator later claims, with clear-eyed pity), while God is the tyrannical cousin’s prejudice about good blood (“You must acknowledge that such an admixture should be looked on by a De Courcy, or even by a Gresham, as a pollution” – this is the ugliest line in the cousin’s letter).  This is not Trollope as the Great Sympathizer – he has chosen sides.  The metaphor is monstrous.

Augusta Gresham and Lady Amelia de Courcy are peripheral characters in Doctor Thorne.  The entire chapter should, following standard Just-in- Time fiction writing principles, be jettisoned.  It serves as a strong thematic counterpoint – the novel’s hero and heroine behave quite differently than Augusta  – but otherwise the main story would not notice its absence.  Thus, just the place to inspect most carefully.

*  In her amusing and instructive 1999 lecture “Partly Told In Letters: Trollope's Story-telling Art,” Ellen Moody demonstrates that Trollope’s novels are “chock full of letters.”

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

And thus Frank married money, and became a great man. - tension in Trollope

Frank Gresham, heir to a name but no longer a fortune, needs to marry money to save the family estate.

Mary Thorne is not penniless but is not “money,” and is secretly illegitimate and worse.  Not worse to Trollope, or me, but to various other characters.

At the end of the Doctor Thorne, as Trollope informs his readers on page 7, Frank and Mary will wed.  Obstacles will be overcome.  The interest of the story is then, presumably, in how.  Except that quite early in the novel, in Chapter 10 (the wedding is in Chapter 47), Trollope unveils the how.  At every point afterwards where he might introduce a complication, he actually removes one.  Now what?

Reading Margaret Oliphant’s The Perpetual Curate, I discovered that she spent the first quarter of the novel coming up with a number of paths that would allow her romantic protagonists to wed; a true disciple of Trollope, Oliphant made sure that each one would be unsatisfying to an experienced reader, that each solution was too easy, too trivial.  Oliphant was creating constraints on herself – she had to solve the puzzle of the novel without resorting to any of the easy solutions.  Trollope, by contrast, picks a single unsatisfying solution and works within its limits.

By satisfying, I mean that the resolution of the story of Frank and Mary needs to be psychologically and ethically meaningful – the characters, confronted with difficulties, become better people (or worse, but that’s a different story).  This is also the romantic, the “true love,” ending, not necessarily the most original ending imaginable, but more appealing than one where the lovebirds have a giant pile of money dropped on them.

Any tension comes from the fact that the pile of money is on its way.  The plot of the novel is a sort of race between the “true love” ending and the money ending.  Trollope’s challenge is make the race as close as possible, with all the protagonists reaching an ethical peak before the tidal wave of money hits them.  Or, to stick with the horse race, his fun is having True Love win by a nose, because once the money arrives the questions of maturity, perseverance, and so on become uninteresting.  Whether a reader finds this entirely satisfying, I defer on that, but it is what Trollope is doing with the romantic plot, and he does it quite openly, since he keeps no secrets from the reader.  Doctor Thorne’s plot is, mechanically, all about information management and timing, as are, I suppose, all good plots.

Then, in the final chapter, he blatantly mocks readers interested in the wedding itself.  First:

She [Mary] wore on that occasion — But it will be too much, perhaps, to tell the reader what she wore as Beatrice's bridesmaid, seeing that a couple of pages, at least, must be devoted to her marriage-dress, and seeing, also, that we have only a few pages to finish everything; the list of visitors, the marriage settlements, the dress, and all included.

And then, six pages later:

And now I find that I have not one page — not half a page — for the wedding-dress.  But what matters?  Will it not be all found written in the columns of the Morning Post?

All of which is followed by what may or may not be mockery, or is mockery, but of whom?

And thus Frank married money, and became a great man.

Or does it just resemble mockery?  Because Doctor Thorne really may be the story of how Frank became a great man (and, entirely incidentally, married money), with the emphasis on, the interest in, the how.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

This is unartistic on my part, and shows want of imagination as well as want of skill - the badly-told Doctor Thorne

If I have been referring to Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne by another name, it is only because its author suggested that I do so:

Those who don't approve of a middle-aged bachelor country doctor as a hero, may take the heir to Greshamsbury in his stead, and call the book, if it so please them, "The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the Younger." (Ch. 1)

I have, then, been using the Love and Adventures title under false pretences, as I am perfectly comfortable with the bachelor country doctor as hero.  He is good company and spends the novel working through a reasonably knotty ethical problem, pitting profession against family, money against love, that if not as profound as, oh, Levin’s agonizing about the purpose of life in Anna Karenina is nearly sufficient to give substance to a three volume Victorian novel.

There’s also a romantic plot – will Frank be able to wed Mary?  The latter is the novel’s heroine, “a point on which no choice whatsoever is left to anyone” (Ch. 2).  Frank would be the hero:

had not that place been pre-occupied by the village doctor.  As it is, those who please may so regard him.  It is he who is to be our favourite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trials and his difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be.  I am too old now to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart.

Trollope was forty-three, so judge “too old” accordingly.  I remind the reader that we are still in Chapter 1, on page 7 of 569 in my orange Penguin, where we have been told how the “story” “ends.”  Tony, of Tony’s Reading List reminds me that “Trollope never lets suspense build up when he can tell us in advance what is likely to occur.”  Why does Trollope do that?

Perhaps Trollope is incompetent.  Such is his own claim at the beginning of Chapter 2:

It can hardly be expected that any one will consent to go through with a fiction that offers so little of allurement in its first pages; but twist it as I will I cannot do otherwise.  I find that I cannot make poor Mr Gresham hem and haw and turn himself uneasily in his arm-chair in a natural manner till I have said why he is uneasy…  This is unartistic on my part, and shows want of imagination as well as want of skill.  Whether or not I can atone for these faults by straightforward, simple, plain story-telling--that, indeed, is very doubtful.

He is as bad as Thackeray or Fielding, isn’t he, a terrible liar.  I, as a reader, should be insulted.  As a quite different reader – instead, I am openly laughing at Trollope’s mockery of simple story-telling.

I do believe this will be a two-part post.  Here’s where I am going with this:  straightforward, simple, plain story-telling is boring.  Boring to read – well, let me leave that to the peculiarities of the individual reader.  Boring to write – that’s where I am going.

Monday, July 11, 2011

He had been brought thither to be scoffed at and scorned at, that he might be a laughing-stock to his enemies, and food for mirth to the vile-minded - cruel Trollope, cruel reader

I’m still thinking about bad ideas, or at least one specific bad idea, which is to spend part of the week, or worse, all of it, writing about Anthony Trollope’s 1858 novel The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the younger, the third of the six Barchester books.  The reason this is a bad idea is that not so long ago I spent – what was it – four days on the previous Barchester book, Barchester Towers, and I would be hard pressed to argue that The Loves and Adventures etc. is much different.

At one point, for example, I thought I might write a post about Trollope as a gag-writer, as a joke-teller.  This was while reading Chapter 12, in which two doctors spar over a patient.  One of them, Dr. Fillgrave (get it, get it?), is round and short, and Trollope cannot keep from telling jokes about Dr. Fillgrave’s height.  It’s pretty low humor, really, and darn funny.  And Trollope is himself aware of the level of the humor:

Here was an aggravation to the already lacerated feelings of the injured man. He had been brought thither to be scoffed at and scorned at, that he might be a laughing-stock to his enemies, and food for mirth to the vile-minded. He swelled with noble anger till he would have burst, had it not been for the opportune padding of his frock-coat.

The vile-minded!  Ha ha ha ha!  That’s a bit strong.  The joke here is about Fillgrave’s roundness, isn’t it, but the short jokes are more common – one follows three sentences later: Dr. Thorne “address[es] Lady Scatcherd over the head and across the hairs of the irritated man below him” and so on.

Anyway, that would be a good post, Anthony Trollope as sitcom writer, Trollope as Wodehouse.  Something like this piece that I already wrote.  Hmm.  Well, never mind then.  No point now in writing about Trollope the comedian.

I see another curious and edifying point to make, though.  In my previous post on the subject, I singled out a scene in which a tipsy Mr. Slope is about to make a fool of himself, and a line which I called a good joke:  “It was a pity that in such a state he could not have encountered Mrs. Proudie,” his arch-enemy.  I interpreted this line as if it were the narrator, “Trollope,” who thought it was a pity etc. that the characters could not meet because of the foregone comic possibilities, .  But the line is also Mr. Slope’s – he also thinks it is a pity etc., because he could really give Mrs. Proudie what for, tell her a thing or two, and on like that.

The line simultaneously belongs to the narrator and the character, but has a different meaning for each.  In the passage about Dr. Fillgrave from Francis Newbold Gresham, particularly in that second sentence, the technique is the same.  Dr. Fillgrave is fuming about why he was asked to see this patient, why he has encountered his enemy Dr. Thorne.  “Vile-minded” is his language.  He thinks there has been a conspiracy to make a fool of him.

He is right; there has been a plot against him.  If I attribute the line to “Trollope,” to the narrator, the meaning changes.  Dr. Fillgrave has, in fact, been brought into this scene, into this novel, to be a laughing-stock.  His primary purpose in the novel is to be the object of jokes and laughter.  The novel’s readers are his enemies.  The doctor calls us “vile-minded” and means it; Trollope calls us, and himself, “vile-minded” so we can laugh at the doctor’s hyperbole and hysteria.  Then he pokes the doctor in his big belly.

Maybe I should mention that this novel is more commonly known as Doctor Thorne.  That’s something I could write about.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Written Lives, the Javier Marías book that is most like a bag of potato chips or season of 30 Rock on DVD or whatever your metaphor for compulsively readable might be

Another bad idea – I got a million of ‘em! – is to write about a book I read five years ago and do not have in my possession.  A critic must be flexible.  The book is Written Lives by Javier Marías, published in Spanish in 1992, Englished by the heroic Margaret Jull Costa in 2006.  On the surface a collection of little biographies of famous writers, it is a stranger book than it appears, but still a good possibility for the skeptical reader, the one who suspects Marías of postmodern twaddle.

William Faulkner, Isak Dinesen, Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, Emily Brontë, and so on, twenty-six total biographical sketches, each accompanied by a photograph of the individual – Marías, in an additional and somewhat dull essay discusses his collection of photographs of authors.  The pieces are idiosyncratic and incomplete, meaning that they cannot substitute for encyclopedia entries.  Marías stitches together whatever anecdotes or oddities or stray facts strike his fancy.  He is always interested in an author’s last words, for example, and bad habits, and hobbies:

Isak Dinesen claimed to have poor sight, yet she could spot a four-leaf clover in a field from a remarkable distance away, and could see the new moon when it was not yet visible.  When she saw it, she would curtsy to it three times, and, she claimed, you must never look at it through glass, because that spelled bad luck.  She played the piano and the flute, preferably Schubert on the first and Handel on the second, and in the evenings, she would often recite poems by her favourite poet, Heine, and sometimes by Goethe, whom she detested, but nevertheless recited.  She loathed Dostoyevsky… (20)

Marías, in Written Lives, has no interest at all in his subjects’ writing (or, really, he takes the value of the writing as given), but is fascinated by their reading:  “The author he hated most, though, was Dostoyevsky…  the mere mention of his name would provoke a furious outburst” (13) – this is Joseph Conrad.  “He read Don Quixote every year” (8)- that’s Faulkner.

The underlying concept of Written Lives is “to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters, which may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated” (1-2).  Here we have the germ, it seems, of Dark Back of Time, published six years later, in which Marías treats himself like a fictional character.

I am able to indulge in this post, these quotations, because of the generous excerpts available through Google books.  The entire Faulkner piece, all four pages of it, is available there, and should be a good guide for any curious reader.  Too bad the cruel, hilarious Thomas Mann essay is not online.

I have some doubts about the value of Written Lives, which at times seems like biography as gossip.  When I had it in my hands, though, it was too compulsively fun to stop reading.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear - the third book of five

The narrator of Your Face Tomorrow is obsessed with names – nicknames, fake names, his own name, all perfectly apt for the hero of a spy novel – but he did not always have a name himself, not in his earlier books.  Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear  is not the first book of a trilogy, it turns out, but the third book of five, or more likely the Xth book of N.

Marías skillfully avoids proper names for the first eleven pages of YFT:F&S before almost inadvertently slipping one in on page 14.  Then nothing for a few more pages; then a flurry of names on pages 18 and 19, where something odd happened:  I recognized the narrator, along with another character he mentioned.  I had met them before, in another novel, one that preceded YFT by thirteen years, the 1989 All Souls.  The spy novel’s many-named narrator is also the unnamed narrator of All Souls.

It was ten years ago that I read All Souls.  I can be precise because along with All Souls, in paperback, I purchased the English translation of Dark Back of Time (1998) in hardback soon after it came out in 2001.  An article in The Hudson Review had piqued my interest in Dark Back of Time, but its author had suggested that I read All Souls first, which I did, immediately, although Dark Back of Time for some reason was carted around the country unread until last week.  Dark Back of Time is narrated by a new character, or one new to me, “Javier Marías”:

I'm going to stop now and say no more for a while; I remember what I said long ago, in speaking of the narrator and author who have the same name here: I said I no longer know if there is one of us or two, at least while I am writing.  Now I know that of those two possible figures, one would have to be fictitious. (DBoT, 336)

Dark Back of Time is not a sequel to All Souls, but is about that novel, about its publication and reception and some strange real-life, so to speak, events caused by part of the plot of All Souls.  The latter, earlier book is a campus novel, sub-genre Oxford (“one of the cities in the world where least work gets done, where simply being is much more important than doing or even acting,” AS 4) with lots of amusingly odd customs and wacky professors.  What I remember best about the novel is its lengthy tour of Oxford used book shops – All Souls is a great classic in the all too rare “used book shopping” genre.  The fictional narrator becomes tangled up in the story of an obscure but real writer, John Gawsworth, which eventually leads (later, outside of the novel) to the real writer Javier Marías being declared King of Redonda, a title he still holds today.

Dark Back of Time is to some degree about how the fiction of All Souls intrudes on reality, how a fiction becomes real, but remains fiction, or even fictionalizes reality.  It begins with “real” Oxford professors searching for themselves in All Souls, which Marías insists is entirely the product of his imagination, all but the highly unlikely story of John Gawsworth, and then somehow shifts to the subject of bizarre deaths, buttressed by more book collecting.  The underlying idea is that everyone’s death, everyone’s life, is disquietingly unlikely.

 I refer the reader interested in the Kingdom of Redonda, or curious about how Alice Munro became the Duchess of Ontario, to the English Wikipedia page for Javier Marías, the Redonda section, which is, I have no doubt, packed with smoke, half-truths, jokes, and outright lies, just like Dark Back of Time.

Before I forget:  Dark Back of Time is translated by Esther Allen, while All Souls and the three chunks of Your Face Tomorrow are by the indefatigable Margaret Jull Costa.  Good, good translations.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear - the first book of three

Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear is the first book of a trilogy, and is presumably not meant to stand on its own, not entirely.  Or is it?  I have not read the other two books.  How would I know.  What I can do, what I can hardly resist doing, is wonder what will happen in the next two books.

No, stronger, stronger – this is what I should do, what I have to do, because I have 800 pages to read and only finite memory and concentration.  Where should I direct my attention; which parts of this book should I take with me, and which can I safely abandon?

If I turn to p. 282, for example, I find two lists of names.  The narrator has joined some sort of intelligence gathering operation and is examining its files.  The first list is of “some very famous entries: ‘Bacon, Francis’, ‘Blunt, Sir Anthony’, ‘Caine, Sir Michael (Maurice Joseph Micklewhite)’” and so forth, celebrities and politicians, presumably unrelated to the novel’s story, although a few have some thematic resonance, whether biographically like Blunt and John Le Carré, or through their stage names and pen names (the narrator is obsessed with names) like Michael Caine and John Le Carré.

But then there’s the second list, of nobodies, names that “meant nothing, being unknown to me: ‘Booth, Thomas’, ‘Dearlove, Richard’, ‘Marriott Roger (Alan Dobson)’” and many more.  If I were reading a Nabokov novel, this list would contain two traps, three snares, a private joke only understood by the author’s wife, and at least one clue that will be absolutely necessary 300 pages in the future.  I refer the skeptical reader to Lolita, I.11., Lolita’s class roster, “a poem I know already by heart.”  Does a Marías novel, or more importantly this Marías novel, work the same way?  One of the names is borrowed on the very next page, drafted as a pseudonym – perhaps Marías is done, then.  But: “I have an excellent memory for names,” the narrator warns me as he ends his list.  I don't!

A glance at the first few pages of the second volume tells me that the style and narrator continue as usual, without pause.  What, I wonder, do the breaks between books mean?  Perhaps the meaning is entirely commercial, one book for the price of three, with a handsome omnibus edition available in the near future.  Or the narrator may make a more subtle shift in his language or imagery or thematic interest.  Or he will just emit words until their accumulated weight crushes him.

Another glance, at the acknowledgements page of volume 2, lets me know that Rilke makes a return appearance.  I had better dogear page 346 of volume 1, with its quotation from the Duino Elegies.  I don’t know why I need it, but it seems I do.

It is just possible that something will happen in the second book.  It is a fine joke, a joke on the spy genre, how little happens in Fever and Spear.  There is, I admit, that frenetic action scene in which the narrator frantically searches the indices of a number of books, and what about the revelatory reading of an entry from Who’s Who?  I have a prediction about where this is all going, what the emphasis on talk and silence will get us, all based on the fact that Marías underlined a single sentence of his novel: “Amongst those arrested are several singularly beautiful foreign women.”  The underlining makes sense in context, but I am giving it an additional layer of meaning, treating it as a trick.  I am surely wrong; Marías surely has his own tricks, better ones.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

It’s both a mystery and not a mystery - Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear

“One doesn’t know why or how or about what, but the fact is that they [us, you and me, everyone] spend the hours engaged in chit-chat, without once closing their mouths, even snatching the word from each other’s lips, all intent on monopolising it.  It’s both a mystery and not a mystery.”  (336)

That’s a sliver of Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear, the 2002 pseudo-spy novel (both a spy novel and not a spy novel) by Javier Marías.  The speaker, Peter Wheeler, is an eighty year-old Oxford professor and former spy; the narrator is a younger Spanish translator who suspiciously resembles, and more suspiciously differs from the novel’s author.  The quotation is somewhere in the middle of a seventy page near-monologue on the value of silence, spoken by a man who will not stop speaking, reported by a narrator if anything even wordier.

Marías, like Proust and Thomas Bernhard and W. G. Sebald, is known for long sentences, and Your Face Tomorrow seems particularly extreme in this regard, deliberately expanding each sentence with every conceivable qualifier and contradiction, unable to fix a single position for longer than a phrase or two, with the beginning of the above quotation (“why or how or what about”) only the simplest example, or anyway one of the simpler examples I could find in this onslaught of words, no wordier, to be sure, than any other novel of the same length (nothing but a tautology, that observation) and while “wordy” must be the most pointless imaginable description of a piece of prose, Marías is here employing a particularly wordy wordiness, so to speak, but only because conjunctions and other connectors replace punctuation – Your Face Tomorrow has more than its share of ands, buts, ors, and so on – which is really all there is to the trick, or the gimmick, or, more politely, technique, a frankly facile device, something any writer can mimic if he sets his mind to it; the question, then, is neither how nor about what but simply: why?

Your Face Tomorrow, this first volume, at least, is very much about wordiness, about words and their absence:

Keeping silent, erasing, suppressing, cancelling, and having, in the past remained silent too:  that is the world’s great unachievable ambition, which is why anything else, any substitute, falls short, and why it is pure childishness to withdraw what has been said and why retraction is so futile; and that is also why… (16)

Ellipses mine.  As you might guess, that sentence goes on for a while.  Similar passages, paraphrases, really, are on pages 5 and 8.  Repetition is another necessary technique for Marías, as are lists.

Wheeler’s monologue on silence, centered on a series of World War II posters (reproduced in the novel) of the “Loose Lips Sink Ships” genre, the genuine climax of this novel about words, is interrupted by an external shock and an inability to remember a particular word, possibly as the result of a previous stroke.  Wheeler seems to regard the phenomenon as a premonition of death.  His silence is echoed, metaphorically, by the story of a man who was silent under torture during the Spanish Civil War.  Words are life; silence is death.  Silence saves lives; words kill.

This is what everyone else is getting from the novel, yes?  Richard of Caravanos de Recuerdos has kindly organized a readalong opportunity.  I urge anyone interested to jump in.  Start with volume 2; why not?  Paradoxically you’re already at least two books behind if you start with volume 1.  I’ll write about that later this week.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Oh, but it’s like this, look you, what on earth is that? - Ubu ended

Well, Anything Ubu has been a fine bloggish experiential endeavor.  I have learned plenty from other people and have, I suppose, done my best.   In my defense, I do not understand a word Jarry wrote.

For example, let’s end with an ending, the grand finale of Ubu Cuckolded.   Pa Ubu has just retrieved his Conscience from the toilet, where he had stuffed it, and he is joined by Achras who is a mathematician, and a breeder of polyhedra.  Why not.

With a noise like an engine-whistle THE CROCODILE crosses the stage.

SCENE FOUR

ACHRAS, PA UBU, his CONSCIENCE, THE CROCODILE.

ACHRAS. Oh, but it’s like this, look you, what on earth is that?

PA UBU. It’s a boidie.

CONSCIENCE. It’s a most characteristic reptile and moreover (touching it) its hands possess all the properties of a snake’s.

PA UBU. Then it must be a whale, for the whale is the most inflated boidie in existence and this animal seems thoroughly distended.

CONSCIENCE. I tell you it’s a snake.

PA UBU. That should prove to Mister Conscience his stupidity and absurdity.  We had come to the same conclusion long before he said so: in fact it is a snake!  A rattler into the bargain.

ACHRAS (smelling it). Ouf!  One thing’s quite certain, look you, it ain’t no polyhedron.

And curtain, or houselights on, or turn the hose on the audience, or whatever your theater does when the play ends.  Curtain calls, everybody!  Stamp your feet and clap your hands for the puppeteer!

I see the form of actual play writing here.  Characterization, for example, like Pa Ubu’s utter ignorance and endless confidence in his immediate declaration that a crocodile is a bird, or the pedantic empiricist Conscience identifying a crocodile as a snake through examination of its hands, just the thing a snake does not have, although neither does a crocodile, come to think of it.  The last line of Achras links back to the first line of the play (”I’ve no grounds to be dissatisfied with my polyhedra”), but in a meaningless manner.

Jarry is parodying good practice.  That crocodile appears nowhere else in the play, but is dragged on stage for the play’s last two minutes.  It does relate to some earlier Egyptian nonsense, and may well be stolen from someone else’s play.  I fear the entire ending is a parody of a play that does not actually exist.  Efficient, I must admit.

Thanks to all of the Ubu readalongists.  To anyone who read a line of Ubu, or an entire play, and decided against writing about it: I do not blame you.   Boy, I do not.

So next week, after the July 4 holiday, I leap ahead, past the signed toilets and twelve-tone music and anti-novels and anarchic cartoon rabbits and onstage rhinoceri to an actual contemporary novel or three, the first volume of Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marías, a spy novel, or so it pretends.  Actually, it is itself a kind of anti-novel.   And then I beat my retreat to the gentle comforts of Victorian literature, to The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the younger by Anthony Trollope, although anyone who finds this novel too comforting is not reading it well.