Thursday, November 15, 2018

Kafka's creativity - everything written down bit by bit is inferior

Kafka wrote little paradoxical parables, and he wrote longer stories built on big, blatant symbols, and he wrote numerous scenes in those stories about interpretation.  He resists interpretation, but he also demands it.  The impulse to allegorize has the drawback of making any story, especially the longer ones, about anything.  The Castle is God; start there and start shoving the various pieces into place.

I was surprised, on this long visit with Kafka, how much writing there was in his stories, how many of them were directly about writing in some way.  His diaries make it clear enough that the stories are often about his own writing, his own creativity.  This is my totalizing allegorical contribution to the interpretation of Kafka.

I think there is only one late story, “Eleven Sons,” which Kafka actually declared to be about his writing.  “The eleven sons are quite simply eleven stories I am working on this very moment” (The Complete Stories, pp. 474-5).  Normal practice for Kafka.  From his diaries, January 18, 1915:

Headache, slept badly.  Incapable of sustained, concentrated work.  Also have been in the open air too little.  In spite of that began a new story; I was afraid I should spoil the old ones.  Four or five stories now stand on their hindlegs in front of me like the horses in front of Schumann, the circus ringmaster, at the beginning of the performance.

Kafka struggled to enter a state of uninterrupted concentration in which he could write for hours on end.  This rarely happened, but when it did he felt creatively satisfied.  It is at these moments that he gets a glimpse of the world beyond the veil.

Again I realized that everything written down bit by bit rather than all at once in the course of the larger part (or even the whole) of one night is inferior, and that the circumstances of my life condemn me to this inferiority.  (Dec. 8, 1914)

The struggles of the protagonists of The Trial and The Castle have some resemblance to Kafka’s creative agony.  The character in The Trial even spends the middle of the novel thinking about but not writing the “memorial” that will save him; of course it is never written.  In The Castle, it is his “plea.”  See “In the Penal Colony,” where writing is literally torture – the metaphor made literal.

Much of the last writing of Kafka’s life was directly about creativity – “The Hunger Artist,” “Investigations of a Dog,” “The Burrow,” and “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.”  Curiously, they are all from the point of view of animals, giving the Hunger Artist, in his circus cage, honorary animal status.  He is the greatest faster in the history of the art, but never allowed to do anything really great, meaning to fast until he disappears, at least not until no one cares.  The burrowing animal has built his masterpiece – Kafka is showing us The Castle from the inside – but it is never perfect, always threatened, and the snuffling artist’s life is full of fear and second-guessing.  Then, finally, “Josephine,” almost too sad to quote.

Kafka was preoccupied, at the end of his life, with the purpose of what he was doing.  He did not seem to doubt it, exactly, but wanted to understand it.  Soon enough he, like Josephine the singer, “will happily lose herself in the numberless throng of the heroes of our people, and soon, since we are no historians, will rise to the heights of redemption and be forgotten like all her brothers.”

I will now go register this post with German Literature Month, now in its eighth year, which is something.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How to Read Franz Kafka - with help from Roberto Calasso - The simple story had lost its clear outline

However you want, of course.  I read him literally, mostly, as a fantasy writer.   Gregor turns into a bug; that is what Metamorphosis is about, first.  I think of great fantasy writers as people who make metaphors literal.  Thus reading literally is also reading metaphorically, poetically.

Many enthusiastic readers have wanted Kafka to be allegorical.  They break his code and find that he is a religious writer, Jewish or possibly something else, some kind of gnostic.  Or everything is psychological, really about Kafka’s father, or about his frustrations with or fear of women.  Kafka has attracted totalizers.  He is so complex that they never seem entirely wrong to me.  Only the totalizing tendency is wrong.

It is always a pleasure to find people smarter than me who agree with me.  Robert Calasso’s K. (2002, tr. Geoffrey Brock) is a three hundred page rearrangement of Kafka.  The early chapters mostly put episodes of The Castle in different order.  Eventually other Kafka texts are pulled in, all of the major ones.  Another great temptation with Kafka is to dissolve his individual works, not just his fiction but the fragments, diaries, letters, offhand comments reported by Max Brod, everything, into one omni-text.  I understand completely.  The key to any given text may be somewhere in that other text.  It feels like it should be.  It never is, not quite.

Anyway, this is Calasso, who like me is not really looking for a key:

Kafka can’t be understood if he isn’t taken literally.  But the literal must be grasped in all its powers and in the vastness of its implications.  (25)

You tell ‘em.  Maybe that second sentence moves towards meaninglessness.  The rest of the paragraph is not much help.

It’s awkward to speak of symbols in Kafka, because Kafka experienced everything as symbol.  It wasn’t a choice – if anything, it was a sentence.  (118)

For Kafka, the metaphorical and the literal had the same weight.  The passage from one to the other was smooth.    The metaphorical could take the place of the literal and transform the literal into metaphor.  (119)

Knowledge leads to the evocation of an image.  And that image is immediately recognized as “only an image.”  To move beyond it, it will have to be replaced – with another image.  The process is never-ending.  (122-3)

That last one, that is merely a definition of literature, right?

I am not sure of the source of Kafka’s metaphysics, but it is something like Schopenhauer’s.  Kafka did not merely believe in the existence of a real reality behind the representation of reality in which he lived, he believed that he occasionally experienced that real reality.  It was accessible, occasionally, by means of writing fiction.  Or maybe it was just an image of the real reality, that’s fine too.

Tomorrow I will interpret Kafka a bit myself.  He invites it.  The climax of The Trial, the astounding “In the Cathedral” chapter, is mostly a piece of literary criticism, where Josef K. and the priest close-read and interpret the “Before the Law” parable to exhaustion.

K. said that with finality, but it was not his final judgment.  He was too tired to survey all the conclusions arising from the story…  The simple story had lost its clear outline…  (The Trial, tr. Willa and Edwin Muir, rev. E. M. Butler)

But maybe the characters missed the one true interpretation.  If they had only tried harder, or had access to Kafka’s diaries and letters.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

It’s not at all like me! - I love Kafka

I don’t know why I am drawing up this summary, it’s not at all like me!

Franz Kafka, Diaries, Dec. 31, 1914, tr. Martin Greenberg

Much of this book blog website consists of literary criticism and quotation of great writers I do not even especially like that much when we get right down to it, thus 103 posts tagged "JAMES Henry" at this moment, although who cares what I like.  And if we do care, what I like is literature, and is Henry James ever literature.  He’s endlessly interesting.

I am looking at a stack of books or about Franz Kafka, ten books that I read recently – and the stack is missing a couple that went back to the library.  Some I had read a long time ago, some not until now, and a few I had visited somewhere in between.  I find that I do not particularly want to write about them.  I love Kafka.  Talk about endlessly interesting.  It has been like an old friend dropped by and stayed for a couple of months.  A brilliant, hilarious, exasperating old friend.

I am glad he did not actually drop by.  We have had an issue with a neighbor’s barking dog.  How Kafka hated noise.  Keep an ear out for references to noise and silence in the works of Kafka.

How much have I read about Kafka in the last thirty years, without making any kind of a study of him?  Literary magazines are full of Kafka, whether in the ongoing flow of books about him or in references to him.  My impression is that he has always been there, while references to, reviews of, books about Proust have exploded.  Henry James, he was always there, too.  I have never grown tired about reading about any of them.  Some kind of citation count in major American literary magazines would likely prove that I am wrong about all of this.  What I am trying to say is that even though it has been almost thirty years since I read The Castle (1926), I feel that I have been reading Kafka all along, that I am always reading Kafka.

That last phrase is not true, but it sounds like something Italo Calvino would turn into a story.  “My author is Kafka, and my favourite novel is Amerika.”  Is that a real Calvino quotation?  Not phony internet nonsense?  I had not read Amerika until recently, and there were parts that were so Calvino-like.  But Amerika is, in Kafka’s compressed career, an earlier work, when he was still susceptible to the influence of unborn writers.  They have a similarly clear prose.  “Pure” is Walter Benjamin’s word for Kafka’s German.

The two authors had a similar sense of the absurd, a sense of humor.  I share the sense of humor, but not Kafka’s numerous and varied neuroses, nor his worldview, as far as I can make it out – there are books on this subject.  Though I am more of a creature of the Enlightenment than Kafka, I agree with his powerful psychological critique of reason to the extent that I understand it.

Kafka’s prose, his jokes, his arguments such as they are.  His imagination – as a pure fantasy writer, he is among the greats.  What pleasure there are in Kafka.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Sjón's trilogy of stories, CoDex 1962 - making it resonate with world literature

Sjón’s CoDex 1962 (2018, in English) looks like one novel but is really three, a trilogy:

Thine Eyes Did See My Substance – a love story (1994)
Iceland’s Thousand Years – a crime story (2001)
I’m a Sleeping Door – a science fiction story (2016)

Sjón personally told me, and everyone else in the audience at the book festival, that he was born in 1962, and that everyone in Iceland would immediately recognize “CoDex” as a bookish parody of a genetic-testing company that advertises on television.  Yet the novels are not about the author, not particularly, but about his birth cohort, Icelanders born in 1962.  Or, as the subtitles of the novels suggest, stories about Sjón and his peers, especially one boy who is born in Iceland in unusual circumstances.

The stories include such characters as the golem of Prague, a werewolf, angels, and so on.  Saga heroes, of course.  Stories ancient and modern, for example from Fritz Lang’s M and Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.  Sjón is writing fiction that almost seems old-fashioned.  Remember postmodernism, or the aspect of it that was about story-telling?  When authors would enjoy themselves by mashing all kinds of stories together?  Readers, too, readers like me.


One morning when Jósef L. woke up at home in bed after troubled dreams, he found himself transformed into a giant baby.  [A couple more sentences of this story, before it is interrupted.]

‘Not more stories!’

‘But this is a literary allusion.’

‘So what?’

‘It adds depth to the story of Marie-Sophie and my father, the invalid, making it resonate with world literature.’

‘I don’t care.  Tell me about the child, tell me about you.’  (Thine Eyes, pp. 64-5)

I guess there were, and are, many readers who share this exasperation.  They are likely also the ones who hate self-conscious postmodern screwing around like this.  I, by contrast, enjoy the self-aware playfulness.  Sjón piles on the tricks – dreams, poems, chapters in dialogue, a pageant of the dead.

The first novel in the trilogy is in some limited sense a Holocaust novel.  I have had doubts about the ethics of an author pumping up the significance of, say, his novel about adult literacy by attaching it to World War II atrocities, or writing about one’s love of Italian opera in the context of Maoist terrorism.  Sjón had me a little concerned early on.  But he has thought this through; later in the trilogy he addresses the issue directly.  Stories are in and of themselves powerful things.

Victoria Cribb is Sjón’s translator.  He could not  have said nicer things about her.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Kenneth Burke's Counter-Statement - a turn from the stress upon self-expression to a stress upon communication

Walter Benjamin logistics:  In my memory, used copies of Illuminations were everywhere, but it seems that lovers of critical theory and children’s literature have read so many copies to pieces that the market is not so flooded.  A new edition is being published in January.  It looks like it has a new cover, but otherwise looks like the same old thing.  It is a little odd that this specific configuration of Benjamin has been so enduring.

My point is that my plans are in no way changed, so that I plan to read the most battered, underlined copy of Illuminations I can find and write something on it in early December, or maybe in late November sneaking it in for German Literature Month – in its eighth year! – but if you planned to read along and prefer some new-book crispness in your reading matter, there will be a new book.  You may want to wait a bit.

Then there is a new configuration of Benjamin from Tess Lewis and NYRB in March.  Interesting.  But that is something different.

Meanwhile, I have continued my own reading of the greats of 20th century literary criticism with Kenneth Burke’s Counter-Statement (1931, although I read the expanded 1968 edition).  Counter to what, exactly?  As Burke notes in the preface to a subsequent edition, he is vague on this subject.  He is not a Marxist critic, not a Freudian, not a disciple of T. S. Eliot.  Whatever is going on in criticism in the late 1920s, he is not doing it.  He is doing something else.

The first essay is portrait of three art-for-art’s-sakers, Flaubert and Pater and Remy de Gourmont.  The second, “Psychology and Form,” moves the subject to readers and their expectations about forms, and the way writers use those expectations.  Burke describes this as “a turn from the stress upon self-expression to a stress upon communication” (223-4).  This turn continues through the book, perhaps through Burke’s career (Counter-Statement is his first book).  Burke like both, by the way, just as he likes a diversity of readers.  He is a generous critic.

I thought the first essay was terrific, with a Flaubert who looked a lot like my Flaubert, a Pater who behaved like the one I read, and a lot of interesting stuff about Gourmont, who had been a rumor to me.  Another highlight is a dual essay, “Thomas Mann and André Gide,” full of surprising parallels.  Burke was an early champion of both writers; he sees them both as “trying to make us at home in indecision…  trying to humanize the state of doubt” (105).

But of course I prefer – understand – Burke when he is writing about specific writers.  In the second half of Counter-Statement, he becomes more abstract, more of a systematizer, with essays titled “Program” and “Lexicon Rhetoricae” and “Applications of the Terminology,” which are not as dull as they sound, but were harder on my teeth.  “Program,” a move towards literature as sociology, may be as dull as it sounds.  I wonder if it is parodying something.

When I read Burke or Kermode or Benjamin, am I studying criticism or the history of criticism?  Some of each.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Maxim Gorky's My Apprenticeship - he becomes a reader - a book that was really true to life

I have been reading Maxim Gorky continue his education in the second volume of his autobiography, My Apprenticeship (1916).  The previous volume was My Childhood (1913), but that is over.  Now it is time to get to work.  Gorky is, when My Apprenticeship begins, eleven years old.

The book has a substantial resemblance to the grandfather of the picaresques, Lazarillo de Tormes (1554).  Like Lazarillo, young Gorky moves from job to job, enduring each one for the length of a chapter or two until the specific miseries of the situation induce a change.  And as in the Spanish story, the real interest is less the mechanics of the work but the people the boy meets.  One job is not even miserable, quite the opposite, the summer he spends gathering herbs and mushrooms in the woods with his grandmother, the only person alive who loves him.  Economically marginal, though, an idyll that cannot last.

The title of the book is ironic in that none of the jobs really turns into an apprenticeship, training in a skilled trade, just as the last volume in the trilogy, My University, is not about Gorky’s time at an actual university.  But My Apprenticeship is nevertheless about Gorky’s education, in people, in cruelty, but also in books.

The big reader, the childhood reader, will be pleased with My Apprenticeship.  Gorky is one of us; we identify.  His fundamental difficulties in acquiring books are in and of themselves dramatic, a plot.  The evolution of his tastes are another, his move from simple Russian moralistic stories (“It seemed that those books were actually laughing at me, as though I were an idiot…” Ch. 9, 138-9) to adventures and saint’s lives and a kind of serialized novel he calls “literature for the digestion of people who were bored to death” (161), and eventually to an amazed discovery of Dumas, Hugo, Scott, and “a book that was really true to life” (172), Eugénie Grandet.  “That truth, with which I was so familiar and which I found so boring in real life, now threw a completely new light on everything – calm and benevolent” (172).

Gorky reads Russian literature, too – Gogol, Turgenev, Pushkin – and the most startling scene is when he reads aloud Lermontov’s long narrative poem “The Demon” (1839) to a workshop of ikon painters and they have to lock the book away because it is too powerful (Ch. 14, 258).  Now that is the way to read.

Always fair, Gorky presents the opposing perspective.  This is from one of his relatives, when he has just fallen in love with reading:

“Some people who read books blew up a railway once and tried to murder someone.” (Ch. 8, 154)

How do you argue with that?  Yet Gorky kept reading.

For this volume of the autobiography I read the good translation by Ronald Wilks, the Penguin Classics edition, or at least the better one, since it cannot be worse than the one I read before.  See languagehat for the hilarious howlers.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Some favorite bits of Nausea - Enjoying the ignoble marmelade

What did I especially like in Jean-Paul Sartre’s debut novel, La Nausée?  I will list many things.  Some may come from my misunderstanding of the French language.

For example, this sentence: “J’avais peur, mais j’étais surtout en colère, je trouvais ça si bête, si déplacé, je haïssais cette ignoble marmelade” (185).  “I was afraid, but mostly I was angry; I found it so stupid, so unwarranted; I hated this vile pudding.”  The narrator, Roquentin, has just had – or is writing in his journal as if he has just had – a profound experience in which he gets a glimpse of reality by staring intensely at the root of a chestnut tree.  This line comes a bit after.  The ignoble marmelade is reality, everything, or everything outside of Roquentin.  This is by far the most famous scene in the novel.

Soon after, in an long, especially novelistic scene, Roquentin has a long reunion with his ex-girlfriend, who gently expresses her despair and insists that they are never ever getting back together.  This leads the narrator – I am taking this all as psychological, rather than metaphysical – to embrace his newfound sense of freedom, of existence, while affirming his loathing of people and their fat, comfortable faces, and their popular novels (“ils écrivent des romans populistes / they write popular novels,” 217).

Won’t they be surprised, he thinks, when the forest invades the town and unleashes Lovecraftian horrors on the people, when third eyes appear in their foreheads and their tongues turn into millipedes, or maybe centipedes.  “Mille-pattes,” not sure how the French distinguish between the two.  A forest of phalli will erupt, oozing sperm and blood from their wounds.  “Alors j’éclaterai de rire, même si… / Then I will burst into laughter, even if…” (219)  I will direct you to Time’s Flow Stemmed, where Anthony thoughtfully posted the entire magnificent paragraph.

It was at this point where I realized I had to let the “philosophical” novel go, and accept that the narrator was an extreme psychological case, which is a good subject for a novel; this is not a complaint.

My other favorite scene is completely different, and sane.  It is a sketch of Sunday in a French city.  French Sundays have changed since 1938 – it is easier to shop – but maybe they have not changed that much.  This long scene, in which Roquentin wanders around looking for a place to just sit and read Eugénie Grandet, felt right to me.  Since we are fairly early in the novel, the narrator uses this section to describe the town, its streets and shops and crowds.  I especially like the exterminator across from the church, with a window display with a diorama of rats and mice sailing a ship, and being driven back to sea by some kind of poison.

J’aimais beaucoup cette boutique, elle avait un air cynique et entêté, elle rappelait avec insolence les droits de la vermine et de la crasse, à deux pas de l’église la plus coûteuse de France.  (67)

I really loved this shop; it had a cynical and stubborn air, recalling with insolence the rights of the vermin and the dirt, a couple of steps from the most costly church in France.

In Lyon, there is an exterminator a few steps from a church who has for some reason a mounted beaver in the window.  In Paris, there is a truly hideous exterminator displaying several rows of dead rats in traps.  I seem to have gotten away from the depiction of Sunday.  That seemed right, but so did the bit about the exterminator.

Roquentin gets a little Balzac read.  He for some reason copies a page directly into his journal.  Sartre puts a page of Balzac in his novel.  Now that is a real anti-novelistic gesture.

Translations are all mine; please correct them if that seem like a good use of your time.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

What does Nausea mean? - The boeuf en daube tempted me

Roquentin is a crisis that in retrospect we will call “existential.”  He is having a crisis of meaning – why am I here, what point is there in doing anything – but also something much stronger, a crisis of existence, actual doubts that he exists.  That anything exists.

These are bedrock philosophical issues.  It is a little odd to see the latter affect an adult so strongly.  Most of us reconcile ourselves to the existence of either the world, our self, or both, at an early age.  Haven’t we?  There is a solipsistic aspect to existentialism, but I should beware of my own solipsism.

Nausea (1938) is in the form of Roquentin’s journal, so I do not see the crisis exactly, but Roquentin’s retrospective expression of his crisis.  The meaning of this novel really shifts depending on how reliable I think the journal is.  Several of the longest scenes look suspiciously like scenes from novels, with lots of dialogue and minute action and gestures.  Lines are said adverbily, shoulders are shrugged.  I did not need the verb “to shrug” for getting by in France, for conversation, but boy do I need it for literature.

No surprise when the narrator declares, at the end of his journal and Sartre’s novel, that he will himself start work on a novel, presumably a refracted version of the one I just read.  Well, no, I was surprised, because Proust had ended his big series of novels this way only eleven years earlier and I was amazed that Sartre so blatantly copied him.  Ten years is the statute of limitations on endings, I guess?

I point anyone interested to the scene where the narrator and an acquaintance spend two pages ordering lunch in a café.  They look at the menu; they choose appetizers; they choose a main course; they choose wine.

Je parcours le liste des viandes.  Le boeuf en daube me tenterait.  Mais je sais d’avance que j’aurai du poulet chasseur, c’est la seule viande supplémentée.  (p. 147, Gallimard edition)

I looked through the list of meat dishes.  The boeuf en daube tempted me.  But I already knew that I would have the hunter’s chicken, the only dish with an extra charge. (my translation)

I identified closely with this scene.  I have experienced it many times.  How tedious to read!

But Roquentin’s crisis is caused  by an uneasy relationship with things, so it is nice to see him in a scene with a person, someone he knows from the library where he is researching a book, a history.  It helps him get his nausea, his existential queasiness, under control.

A few pages earlier, Roquentin had tamped his despair by a careful study of his own hand, which is part of his self yet exists outside of his self.  He moves from his hand to words – a big jump! – to thoughts.  Perhaps this steadies him during lunch.  “[S]i j’existe, c’est parce que j’ai horreur d’exister” (140).  “If I exist, it is because I have a horror of existing.”  It is “hate,” “the disgust of existing,” that convinces him he exists.

How much is Nausea a philosophical novel and how much is it a psychological novel?  Is there a meaningful distinction?  I don’t know.  With existentialism, maybe there is little difference.  The text gives a lot of room, as far as I can tell.

Tomorrow I’ll rummage through some of my favorite things in the novel, whatever it might mean.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Sartre's Nausea, doubtless very well known to you - and which I am incompetent to expound

Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea (La Nausée, 1938) is discussed in a substantial chunk of Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, most of the fifth lecture, which I remind myself was to an audience at Bryn Mawr in 1965, mostly, presumably undergraduates.

The book is doubtless very well known to you; I can’t undertake to tell you much about it, especially as it has often been regarded as standing in an unusually close relation to a body of philosophy which I am incompetent to expound.  (133)

Nausea appears to be – Sartre argued that it was – something of an anti-novel, working against whatever one thought a typical or traditional novel might be.  Kermode uses it to ask “How far is it inevitable that a novel gives a novel-shaped account of the world?” (143) and a number of variations on the question.

What kills me, first, is that Kermode’s first line is likely true.  How things have changed.  What novel, published almost twenty-seven years earlier, in English for sixteen years, could today’s lecturer use?  The Savage Detectives is doubtless very well known to you.”  Impossible.  A new English translation of Nausea, Robert Baldick’s, had just been published.  The previous year, Sartre had declined the Nobel Prize.  Maybe the undergraduates had merely read a lot of reviews of Nausea.  Very funny.  It was a different world.

Nausea was almost completely unknown to me.  Twenty years after The Sense of an Ending, when I began paying attention, Sartre’s reputation had deflated, maybe a lot.  I do not remember him being mentioned in literary or cultural journals much; not as much as Foucault and Derrida.  Nor do I remember him from class.  We read Simone de Beauvoir in Western Civ, not Sartre.  I do remember enjoying his plays, The Flies (1943) and No Exit (1944), which I tried because they were in a Vintage International edition.  Back then, that meant “this is the good stuff.”

My understanding is that Sartre’s reputation has fallen quite a lot in France, too, but this is all relative.  He is much-read, much-discussed, just not at what must have been the exhausting level of the 1960s and 1970s, when he was the kind of figure who was in the newspaper every day, his opinion sought on every subject.  I was pleased and surprised to discover that La Nausée was within my reading level, early high school, maybe, although for ideas and interest it is more advanced.  The novel has an “existentialism for beginners” aspect, but it does not appear to be taught in French high schools at this point.  A new school edition of The Flies came out just this spring – I do not want to exaggerate.

So, poked by Kermode, I read La Nausée, in French, and plan to write about it for a couple of days, beyond today’s throat-clearing or context-setting or whatever it is.  Not only am I incompetent in the philosophy, but also in the French, so I assume I have made some basic errors in comprehension.  Not only am I incompetent in the philosophy, I now see that, as a solid materialist, I am antipathetic to it.  I take it for granted that the world outside of myself exists, that I exist, that kind of thing.  But that is all right.  I like reading about people different than me.

In the end, it is just a novel, and I have some idea how to read those.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Kermode on our endless epoch of transition

The Christian story of the beginning and end becomes damaged, replaced, by scientific discoveries.  Myths turn into literature.  That is how Kermode moves into the literature of his own time.

I mentioned that literary fictions changed in the same way – perpetually recurring crises of the person, and the death of the person, took over from myths which purport to relate one’s experience to grand beginnings and ends.  And I suggested that there have been great changes, especially in recent times when our attitudes to fiction in general have grown so sophisticated  (Ch. II: Fictions, p. 35)

Kermode uses the word “fiction” broadly, including political and legal and religious fictions as well as novels.  My sense is that in 1965, when he gave the lecture, there was enough countercultural activity that he was right.  The established fictions were getting thoroughly worked over, being “seen through,” to use Orwell’s old phrase.

But Kermode is wary, and works on another fiction, the moment of crisis, or the temptation to live in a moment of crisis, a time of transition that is paradoxically unending.  Some moments of crisis are real, as is obvious enough in retrospect.  But:

Crisis is a way of thinking about one’s moment, and not inherent in the moment itself.  Transition, like the other apocalyptic phases, is, to repeat Focillon’s phrase, an ‘intertemporal agony’; it is merely the aspect of successiveness to which our attention is given…  Our own epoch is the epoch of nothing positive, only of transition.  (Ch. IV: The Modern Apocalypse, 101-2)

This describes the novel in general here, isn’t he?  There is a stable beginning, a satisfying ending, and the writer and I spend all of our time in the transition between them, the novel itself.  I enjoy the transition, am surprised and moved and perhaps learn something, all along the way.

Kermode is skeptical of the uniqueness of the feeling of crisis or transition.  Maybe this is just ordinary psychology.  It is enjoyable how much of his discussion of his contemporary literature can be transferred to our contemporary literature with only a change of authors and titles.  He spends most of the fifth lecture on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938) – “This book is doubtless very well known to you” (133) – and plenty of time on Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, and Iris Murdoch, as representatives of the new ideas.  He clearly dislikes the newest of the new ideas, meaning William Burroughs.  “[N]on-communicative triviality” (121).

But it is the skepticism that I find interesting.  How new is the new?  What are today’s avant-gardists doing that the French novelists of the 1950s had not already done?  And then, what did they do that etc., etc.

In a recent interview with Alexandra Schwartz, Rachel Cusk describes her fiction in terms that reminded me of Kermode’s discussion:

I’m trying to see experience in a more lateral sense rather than as in this form of character. Which, as I said, I don’t actually think is how living is being done anymore…

I think this is a moment in culture, generally, where people are suddenly looking again at everything that was accepted, voices that have been ringing in our ears forever, and suddenly thinking, “I’m really sick of this, and I don’t want to read it anymore.”

As I understand Cusk, “character” means something other than the representation of personality.  “How much does character actually operate in a person’s life?”  The word that jumps out is “anymore” (the first instance).  Novels used to represent reality, “living,” when character existed, but not anymore, so new kinds of representation, new kinds of novels, are necessary.

Or things have not changed that much, and one of the most stable things is the useful fiction that things have changed a lot.

Since Sartre’s Nausea was not at all well known to me, I read it, and I will save my hapless flailing on that subject for next week.

Please come back in early December for more literary criticism, Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, which will, I hope, be over my head in different ways than The Sense of an Ending.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Sense of an Ending and its great charms - time, apocalypse, crisis

Frank Kermode is thinking about literary fiction, fictions more generally, as representing reality in some way.  They do not have to do so.  But that is the argument for a different book, maybe a response to The Sense of an Ending.  I would enjoy reading that book.

In this book, though, reality is a premise.  Anyone planning to join me with Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis next year will find some useful ideas in Kermode.

So, given some interest in reality, one strange thing about fictions as expressed in books is that the books begin and even more strangely, end.

We cannot, of course, be denied an end; it is one of the great charms of books that they have to end. (23)

I am not sure that books do have to end, exactly.  There are readers who clearly find it more of a nuisance that books end, readers for whom the endless fantasy or detective series is the ideal.  The story of Superman has been published continuously for eighty years, and is not ending anytime soon.  Maybe that book arguing with Kermode should be written by some kind of fantasy writer.

Kermode takes the charm and strangeness of endings seriously.  He looks for endings in reality.  There is death, personal death.  There is apocalypse, the end of everything.  Apocalypses are themselves fictions, even literary fictions, particularly the ones based on the 1st century Christian fantasy novel Revelation.  Kermode is interested, in this example, in how the fiction is used in reality, how the expectation of the imminent end of the world is expressed in the world itself, the psychology of apocalypse, so much of it tied into the imagery of Revelation.

The world constantly fails to end.  Geology and cosmology pushes the beginning of things further into the past, but the apocalypticist can just shift his fiction to keep the possibility of apocalypse.  Even if the year 1000 is not imminent, or, apocalypse (not) repeated as farce, Y2K is in the distant past, the psychology of “crisis” takes over.  The disaster is off in the distance, and this, right now, is the moment of crisis.  The moment of crisis is, essentially, perpetual, which is a great part of its attraction: “the stage of transition, like the whole of time in an earlier revolution, has become endless” (101).

Roughly speaking, Kermode begins with the end, the apocalypse.  He discusses the nature of time, from Augustine on through Aquinas in the third lecture.  The third lecture is quite difficult.  Medieval Christian philosophy.  I imagine, with pity, that original lecture audience.  I doubt that Kermode adds anything to Augustine on this subject.  I doubt that anyone ever has.  This is the first half of the book.  In the second half, Kermode turns to modern literature, and to regular old novels, which greatly eases the philosophical burden, even in Exhibit A is Sartre’s Nausea, which gets most of a lecture to itself as a type specimen.

That is something like a summary of The Sense of an Ending.

Tomorrow, I will write a bit about the last half of the book – novels, the crisis, then and now.  How we love the crisis.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Beginning Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending - You remember the golden bird

My imagination was for a time haunted by figures that, muttering “The great systems”, held out to me the sun-dried skeletons of birds, and it seemed to me that this image was meant to turn my thoughts to the living bird.  (William Butler Yeats, A Vision, 1925, from Book II: The Completed Symbol, Chapter XVIII)

Funny, I know – Yeats was an odd fellow, or pretended to be – but true, yes?  Ornithologists truly love the living bird, and they indulge, express, and manifest their love by studying bird skeletons, perhaps prepared with a little more care than letting the sun take care of it.

So we read criticism because we love literature.  Unless – there are layers here – literature is the skeleton and the living bird is something else.  Life, perhaps.  Reality.  What is criticism, then?  A drawing of the skeleton?  A discussion of the skeleton?

The tragedy of the Yeats quotation is the phrase “meant to.”  Yes, of course, but the skeletons themselves are so interesting.  Just a little more time with the skeletons.  By “tragedy,” I mean “comedy.”

Tragedy, we are told, must yield to Absurdity; existential tragedy is an impossibility and King Lear is a terrible farce.  (Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, 1967, Ch. I: The End, p. 27)

There is an earlier step, actually.

The end is now a matter of immanence; tragedy assumes the figurations of apocalypse, of death and judgment, heaven and hell; but the world goes forward in the hands of exhausted survivors…  This is the tragedy of sempiternity; apocalypse is translated out of time into the aevum.  (Ch. III: World without Beginning or End, p. 82)

Then comes the collapse into absurdity (or Absurdity), as King Lear and Hamlet collapse into Waiting for Godot and Endgame.  The survivors, they is us.

That’s one story Frank Kermode tells, relatively directly, in The Sense of an Ending, the move in Western literature from apocalypse to tragedy to absurdity, where we still languish, or flourish.  It is a book that sprays ideas in all directions, ideas he cannot possibly follow, a generous book.  Maybe someone in the audience picked them up.  The book collects a series of six lectures at Bryn Mawr.  What the audience possibly understood, I cannot say.  I have wondered the same thing about the lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and they were not half as specialized.  “You remember the golden bird in Yeats’s poem” (Ch. I, p. 3) – uh, I can look it up.  “Sailing to Byzantium,” yes, that is a really famous poem.  But I had to look up the bird.  Curiously, it is a bird without a skeleton.

A couple more days on Kermode’s sun-dried bird.  In some ways – e.g., “aevum” – it is a difficult book.  Which is exactly what I wanted.  I had to read it twice.  Some readers might want to skip past the medieval theology to the second half, to Lecture IV or maybe Lecture V: “as soon as the subject is the novel the argument drops into a perfectly familiar context” (Ch. V, 128).  So true.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

How to read Petersburg - The color red was emblematic of...

Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1913/1916/1922/etc.), a great novel.  In the old days I would have chipped at it for a week or more.  It is complex, is it ever.  Long ago, I read the old Grove Press edition, but this time I wanted to dig in more, so I read the Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad translation (Indiana University Press, 1978), where a text shorter than three hundred pages has eighty pages of introduction and notes.

Good notes.  Fascinating notes.  But is this the way to read a novel?  Well, sometimes yes, sometimes no.

The Grove Press book is incomplete, notoriously error-ridden, and should be retired.  But there have been two subsequent translations, subsequent to Maguire and Malmstad, both less annotated. The reader in the “sometimes no” mood should read one of those, I guess.

But I will not lie, as I usually do – this novel is pretty hard, even aside from the unfamiliarity of the history or society or geography.  Maybe they are familiar to you!  They are interesting.  Still, a map, at least, will help.  Maguire and Malmstad include a fine map.

Petersburg is a father and son fight.  The father is about to rise to the highest rank of the ministry, while the son, a law student, is tangled in revolutionary politics.  He has even agreed to carry a time bomb to kill someone.  “Someone” turns out to be his father! The last third of the novel has a ticking time bomb plot.  It is tense.

Yet in practice the novel is non-melodramatic, more of a dream or even a move towards abstraction.  Bely constructs a complex pattern of colors, motifs, and references that create an object of great beauty for anyone who finds this sort of thing beautiful.  It is not so much that this sunrise is itself beautiful – maybe it is:

The lace [the silhouetted cityscape] metamorphosed into morning Petersburg.  There stood the five-storied houses, the color of sand.  The rust red palace was bedawned. (140, end of “Chapter the Fourth”)

It is the color scheme, recurring in many shades, Bely turning his city into art.  Greens, yellows, reds.  Mirrors, so many mirrors.  An uncanny statue motif, from the caryatids holding up every important building to the prominent sculpted Russians who occasionally come to life, populates the city even when it seems empty:

The Summer Garden lay somber.

The statues each stood hidden beneath boards.  The boards looked like coffins standing on end.  The coffins lined the paths.  Both nymphs and satyrs had taken shelter in them, so that the tooth of time might not gnaw them away with frost.  Time sharpens its teeth for everything – it devours body and soul and stone.  (97, beginning of “Chapter the Fourth, in which the line of the narrative is broken”)

That last sentence shows the narrator is his moralizing mode.  Hard to tell how much of that is parody.

Today’s bout [of heart trouble] had been brought on by the appearance of the red domino.  The color red was emblematic of the chaos that was leading Russia to its doom. (112)

A previous reader of my copy has penciled “Come on” in the margin.  He thinks that is too blunt, I guess.  I fear it is a trap.  Maybe I will figure it out the next time I read Petersburg.

For more on the translations, please see Michael Katz’s short, exasperated review of them in The Slavic and Eastern European Journal (2010).  He thinks the book’s readers need notes, and lots of them.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Russian books I have read recently - Teffi and Zoshchenko - "Yes, we'll loot and pillage!"

One great, tangled novel, Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1916/1922), and two collections of sketches, stories and miscellanea by humorists, let’s call them, Teffi’s Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me (1918-56) and Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Nervous People and Other Satires (1922-55).

Actually, given what is in the Teffi collection, I would never guess that she has been thought of as a humorist.  The pieces are autobiographical, with maybe a little fictionalizing sprinkled in, and are observant and well written, with the ironic tone I associate with lots of great writers, but Teffi is not constantly going for the joke, like Mark Twain (or Zoshchenko).  Teffi’s pieces about her childhood, the Revolution, exile in France were more insightful than funny.  She – I mean, this book – is easy to recommend to anyone more interested in history than literature.

The title is a little off.  Teffi met Tolstoy as a child, and got a good, sensitive little story out of it.  But she knew her colleague Lenin far better, and the piece about him has a lot more insight.  Teffi on Lenin’s speaking:

Lenin simply battered away with a blunt instrument at the darkest corner of people’s souls, where greed, spite and cruelty lay hidden.  He would batter away and get the answer he wanted:

“Yes, we’ll loot and pillage – and murder too!”  (“New Life,” p. 106, tr. Rose France and Robert and Elizabeth Chandler)

The Tolstoy piece has a lot of insight about young Teffi, I guess.  The long, wild piece on Rasputin deserves its cover billing.

The Zoshchenko book really is, mostly, a collection of humor pieces, the kind of thing that made him famous and genuinely popular.  As an outsider, they are hugely instructive about early Soviet culture.  As an outsider, they are not as funny as maybe a Russian would find them, but still often pretty funny.  Many of the jokes are of a nature that would later get Zoshchenko in trouble, despite his popularity.  He jokes about purges, about collectivization, about bad living conditions.  His bedrock joke is that people are deeply selfish, whatever social organization overlays them at the moment.

A man drops a bottle on the street.  Smash.

Then I purposely sit down on the curb near the gate to see what would happen.

What do I see?  I see people walk on the glass.  They curse, but they still walk.  What lack of culture!  There’s not a single person who will fulfill his social obligations.  (“The Bottle,” 179, tr. Maria Gordon and Hugh McLean)

Zoshchenko spins this out for a couple of pages, but the funniest joke remains the one in the first sentence above, the narrator gleefully tsking at everyone who does nothing, all the while doing nothing himself.  I said I learned about Soviet culture, but that was in the details.  The human behavior is universal.

Boris Dralyuk’s recently translated not an anthology but a Zoshchenko book, Sentimental Tales (1929), which may have some overlap with the Nervous People collection but seems to capture one aspect of Zoshchenko that the anthology loses.  As with any humorist, the voice, the character of the story-teller, matters a lot.  Sentimental Tales has a single narrator, or so I understand.  With Nervous People, some stories presumably share characters but there is no real way to tell.  They all blur into Zoshchenko, which blurs some of the fun, some of his art.  Maybe a lot of it.

I was pleased to come across a long passage in which Zoshchenko parodies the style of Andrei Bely and his disciples (“the author will try to take a dip into highbrow artistic literature,” 45).  Would I have recognized the parody if I had not been in the middle of Petersburg at the time?  Yes, there is a footnote.  Would I have gotten the joke at all?  Eh, I don’t know.

I guess I will save Bely’s highbrow artistic literature for another post.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Czech books I have read recently - robot love, plus Kafka and Cather - Only you, love, will blossom on this rubbish heap

Maybe I should have put Franz Kafka in this category.  I organize literature by language, mostly, but it was Klaus Wagenbach’s little biography Kafka (1964) that had me frequently consulting a little map of central Prague.  It helped, too, that I have been there, briefly.  Kafka’s day-to-day world was so small, centered around the main square, the GrosserRing.  His father’s shop was in the same building as his high school.

The Kafka of today, poor fellow, is writing intense fables about people who are trampled by Segway tours and clobbered by selfie sticks.  Or maybe wake up after uneasy dreams to find themselves transformed into selfie sticks.  I did not have the best experience right there in the center of Prague where Kafka lived and worked.  The rest of Prague was great.

The Wagenbach biography is good, but I assume at least a but outdated now.  The Harvard University Press edition (2003, tr. Ewald Osers), has especially nice paper, presumably because it has so many photos.

Maybe I should count My Ántonia (1918), too, but I have not finished it.  Czechs – Bohemians – in Nebraska.  Ántonia and her family sound just like my Bohemian great-uncle, so Willa Cather got that right.

Otto pretended not to be surprised at Ántonia’s behavior.  He only lifted his brows and said, “You can’t tell me anything about a Czech; I’m an Austrian.” (I.18.)

One thing that has surprised me about Kafka, in the biography and in his diaries, is how German, as opposed to Austrian, he is.  Of course he visits Vienna and reads Austrians, but he visits Germany more, he reads German authors more.  On the periphery of one culture, living in another, he constantly looks to others.

I have not seen a mention, in the Kafka stuff I have been reading, of the one purely Czech writer I read recently, Karel Čapek.  What a shame if Kafka never saw R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920).  Will humanity ever tire of stories of robot’s destroying humanity?  It is one of the perfect science fiction conceits, transcending whatever specific story the author tells.  What I mean is that Čapek’s story suggests a profusion of other good stories.  Maybe once the robots actually do take over, that will be the end of it.

In Čapek’s play, an industrialist manufactures robots – androids, really – to replace human workers.  Everything goes well until the robots inevitably organize, destroy, and in the uplifting final page, replace humanity.

Only we have perished.  Our houses and machines will be in ruins, our systems will collapse, and the names of our great will fall away like autumn leaves.  Only you, love, will blossom on this rubbish heap and commit the seed of life to the winds.

So says the last human in the last lines of the play, as the robot Adam and Eve leave the stage.  How ridiculous this sounds will be very much in the hands of the actor and director.  I can imagine a wide range of tone.  I would love to see this play.

I understand that a number of Čapek’s novels are good?

I read the Penguin Classics edition, in Claudia Novack translation.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Some German books I read recently - Rilke, Kafka, Brecht - In the dark times / Will there also be singing?

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. Stephen Mitchell.

Let’s just assume that I did not understand this novel.  There are fragmented pieces about a young man in Paris.  He walks around and goes to museums and so on.  Paris is endlessly interesting.  Then there are other fragments about the narrator’s odd childhood in a castle in Denmark, raised among a group of eccentrics.  These pieces are also interesting.

How the two kinds of pieces fit together, I missed that completely.  Something to look forward to when I read the novel again someday.

The novel has quite a bit of French in it, translated by Mitchell in the notes.  Now that I am reading French, I can just grind through in the text, saving time and energy.  That is a joke; reading the note is easier and faster.  But I don’t read it, no, I must practice my French.

Diaries, 1910-1913, Franz Kafka, tr. Joseph Kresh, ed. Max Brod

I just finished “The Metamorphosis,” (1915), minutes ago, which I have read several times.  It is for me among the perfect fictions, with a central idea that is an outstanding fantasy taken literally but expands endlessly as symbol, metaphor, or allegory, with prose that is precise and elegant, and most surprisingly with at least one character as psychologically complex and “real” as in any other fiction I know.  My memory is that Kafka did not pull off the latter trick so often.

His little 1912 book Meditation (many possible alternative titles) is made up of little observations, or prose poems, or micro-fictions.  I am not sure what they mean, mostly, but reading the diaries I at least see what they are.  Much of Kafka’s writing in his diary, at least in these years, consists of the beginnings of let’s call them stories.  Story starters, except often the story does not start.  One line, a paragraph, then nothing.  And then, inspiration strikes, and Kafka spends all night writing “The Judgment” (1913).  He keeps searching for that magic.  Endlessly frustrating from his point of view.  Meanwhile, Max Brod says “Hey, c’mon, some of these are good – publish them!”

One year, 1911, takes up a third of Kafka’s diary writing, much of which is about Kafka’s love of a Yiddish theater company that set up in Prague.  Kafka not only went to performances but became friends with the actors, hung out with them, had crushes on one in particular.  This whole chunk of the book is of high interest.  Whether it helps me understand anything else Kafka wrote, I will see.  I continue my exploration.

Poems 1913-1956, Bertolt Brecht, tr. many people, ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim

Reading this book was a lot like reading a diary, or, given the 150 pages of notes, a biography of Brecht.  Each poem, published or unpublished, is placed in its period.  The early song-writer becomes distracted by unexpected success in the theater and becomes fascinated by cities, by Berlin.  But in the 1930s events intrude, as strongly as possible, and Brecht becomes a writer in exile, in multiple exiles.

Some poems are public, some are private, unpublished.  Some are blatant propaganda, negligible as poetry, sometimes dismaying, but sometimes not.  But mostly the poems are poems, from the beginning through the worst.


In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

Friday, September 14, 2018

More American literature I read recently - Michael Farris Smith and Sergio de la Pava

I forgot a couple.  Perversely, pathetically, since one of them is The Fighter (2018) by Michael Farris Smith, and I am a quarter way into another of his books, Desperation Road (2017), right now.

Smith is the source of the great line, which I heard him say about one of his own sentences, at a translation joust in Lyon in April, “maybe it’s not perfect but maybe it’s great,” which is useful.  These two novels are about down-and-outers in Mississippi – ex-cons, recovering addicts, aging boxers – who get tangled up in violent disasters but survive them.  What are these called in English?  The French term polar is helpful, since it includes not just mysteries but all kinds of violent crime novels.

What is interesting to me – maybe less so to Smith – is how he is trying to adapt the style of William Faulkner, and Faulkner’s many, endless, descendants, to his stories and characters.  Run-on sentences, sentence fragments, jumps in time, and surprising eruptions of the sublime, that is what I mean.  Smith will write a page or two of gritty plain prose, but once he gets into someone’s head he starts moving around.  Smith points to Larry Brown and Barry Hannah as more directs sources.  Here is how he introduces one of the protagonists:

In the southern Mississippi swamp you can watch the world awaken as the pale yellow sun edges itself between the trees and moss and widewinged cranes.  [Sentence about dragonflies]. [Now some turtles] with murderous patience and skill.  Limbs too old to hold themselves up any longer bend and break like old men accepting their marshy graves.  Reptiles slither and blackbirds cry as the early light slashes and relieves the deep and quiet night.  (Desperation Road, p. 29)

Now that is, I believe, an example of  the genuine Southern Gothic.  The guy thinking about this got out of prison about a week earlier.

Smith is good with plots, and I assume that there is some hope that he will write a book that will turn into a movie that will make some real money.  But meanwhile there are these characters who think plain thoughts in plain prose, but then sometimes think something quite different, maybe something great.

Sergio de la Pava is known for self-publishing his way to prestige with A Naked Singularity (2008), so his new novel, Lost Empress (2018) is on a division of Random House, and I suspect that the commercial interest comes from the possibility that he may someday write a real thriller, which will lead to a movie, and thus real money, since both of these novels contain within them good thrillers.  Unfortunately, in a sense, they are more like William Gaddis than Elmore Leonard, full of digressions, politics, and rhetorical flourishes.  I have stumbled across reviewers suggesting that de la Pava could use an editor.  The evidence suggest to me that he in fact has an editor, a good one, who is sympathetic to what he is doing.

De la Pava is a public defender, a thankless occupation, in New York City; where A Naked Singularity was about the court system, Lost Empress is about prisons.  Both novels are righteously angry, in places.  But then this novel is also about American football, and thus a good counter-argument to the idea that everyone is writing to some generic international audience.  A four page dialogue about the role of the cornerback was the one place I wished de la Pava would have cut, cut, cut.  Otherwise, football, why not.  Football, prison, and Joni Mitchell.  A truly surprising amount of writing about Joni Mitchell.  Please see pp. 421-2, two pages devoted to a track by track appreciation of For the Roses (1972).

Some characters are “real,” rounded and grounded, while others are more like movie characters, fantasy creatures, sometimes even speaking in screenplay form.  This split-level novel is the riskiest thing de la Pava does.  A science fiction conceit explains it, in a way that will make as many readers angry as happy.

What a pleasure it was to sink into a novel that surprised me so often.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Some American literature I read recently - Edith Wharton, Thornton Wilder, George Saunders

The Custom of the Country (1913), Edith Wharton

Wharton’s divorce novel.  She had gone through it herself, but here she uses it as a comic tool in the ruthless social climb, rung by painful rung, of Undine Spragg, a worthy cousin of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp and Trollope’s Lizzie Eustace.  An American cousin.  Her ruthlessness mixed with her genuine American innocence, or ignorance, or both, is a great source of comic energy.

Plenty more comedy.  As a language student, I enjoyed the American traveler “in command of but a few verbs, all of which, on her lips, became irregular” (Ch. 12).  Wharton also occasionally finds some fine descriptive language, this hot August day in New York City, for example: “Swirls of dust lay on the mosaic floor, and a stale smell of decayed fruit and salt air and steaming asphalt filled the place like a fog” (Ch. 22).

But it is Undine who keeps this novel moving.  The final chapter is magnificent, turning the book into some kind of dystopian novel.  A triumph; a plunge into the abyss.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Thornton Wilder

Here I find an early use of the Winesburg, Ohio device, with stories connected by place and time.  A bridge collapses, inspiring a priest to learn about the victims.  He hopes to learn something about the problem of God and the existence of evil.  The stories that follow have a lot to say about how to live well, but of course almost nothing about theodicy, nothing the reader did not already know.  Maybe I am wrong about this.  Good for book discussion groups, I guess.  Still good.  See – do not read, but see – the last chapter of The Goldfinch (2013) for a current example.

The bridge is near Lima, and collapses in 1714.  Wilder reconstructs his Peru entirely from books and his imagination, which lets him think big.  I especially liked the third story, about an actress and her manager, or maybe a manager and his actress, the greatest actress in the Spanish-speaking world.

They went to Mexico…  They slept on beaches, they were whipped at Panama and shipwrecked on some tiny Pacific islands plastered with the droppings of birds.  They tramped through jungles delicately picking their way among snakes and beetles.  They sold themselves out as harvesters in a hard season.  Nothing in the world was very surprising to them.  (“Uncle Pio”)

It is almost fantasy, or at least grand opera.

Tenth of December (2013), George Saunders

I have not read any other Saunders, not a word.  In this collection, he is a lot like Kurt Vonnegut except not as funny.  Or to be precise, this book is not as funny as four of the five Vonnegut novels I have read.  Bluebeard (1987) was a dud.  The book is not as funny as that of his student Kathleen Founds.  But funny is not everything.

Several stories have light science fiction conceits, like memory-altering chemicals or the odd business in “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” in which young immigrant women from difficult circumstances are used by faddish Americans as yard decorations, voluntarily, for pay.  I guess this one is also good for discussion, although I could not work out the allegory in any direction that was interesting.

The critic Robert Scholes wrote that Vonnegut put bitter coatings on sugar pills, and boy does Saunders ever do the same.  Nothing here seemed very hard to deal with, ethically or linguistically.

I thought the title story, the last one, was unusually good.  The conceit, or gimmick, is only linguistic.  A man with brain cancer wants to commit suicide before he becomes incapacitated.  He is losing his language.  As his consciousness streams along it has trouble:

With every step he was fleeing father and father.  Farther from father.  Stepfarther.  What a victory he was wresting.  From the jaws of the feet.  (230)

Punning as psychology, with the man’s despair a response not just to his own illness but to the frightening illness and death of his beloved stepfather.  A human-scaled story, with little comedy beyond the tone, the voice.  If it sounds dark, well, just let the pill dissolve a little.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Reading Winesburg, Ohio through a screen - "He was a sensitive man"

The strange thing about reading Winesburg, Ohio (1919) was seeing a literary tradition suddenly gel, the one that is Hemingway and Faulkner and any number of writers publishing fiction today.  Maybe I should have seen the same thing earlier, reading Gertrude Stein, for example, but I had not read Winesburg, Ohio then.  I was missing a step.

Sherwood Anderson was an intuitive writer, an experimental writer in the sense that he had to write his story to know what he was writing.  I have read that his method of revising stories was to literally rewrite them, to start at the beginning and redo it all from scratch.  Winesburg, Ohio appears to be highly conceptual.  Stories about characters who live in the same small town intersect and by the end perhaps even form a story connected enough to be called a novel.

The “novel” stars George Willard, Boy Reporter, so a writer and a blatant stand-in for a younger Anderson, not that Anderson had been a boy reporter.  His background was a notch or two down the social scale from George’s.  Still, his story ends the way it pretty much has to.  The last story is titled “Departure.”  It was a surprise, though, to read that Anderson had not planned any of this out, had not intended to include “himself,” but just wrote one story, then another, all set in a vaguely described but concretely named place, until the fourth story, about a troubled mother and son, gives him a character who can cross paths with everyone else.

That’s the conceptual innovation, the interconnected stories, even if it was not exactly new.  Stephen Crane’s Whilomville Stories (1900) has something in common, but has the disadvantage of not being especially good.  Spoon River Anthology (1915) is an immediate, direct, and acknowledged predecessor.  Was it really that important that someone do up a town in prose rather than verse?  I guess so.

For Hemingway and Faulkner, the prose was just as important.  The changes must be modest, but the Edith Wharton I have been reading feels like a logical, artful extension of 19th century prose style, while Anderson feels like he’s tossed out some of the old luggage.  He feels more like what I read in magazines today.

“The Untold Lie” is about a pair of farmhands.  The younger one, a wild man, gets a girl pregnant, and tells the older one, Ray, about it.  Ray is jolted.  “He was a sensitive man and there were tears in his eyes.”  He thinks through his own life, his own marriage.  He has a sublime encounter with the beauty of the Ohio countryside.  “The whole world seemed to Ray Pearson to have become alive with something just as he and Hal had suddenly become alive when they stood in the corn field staring into each other’s eyes.”  Ray gropes towards something like a moral, a lesson about the functioning of the universe, but the meaning recedes and the story ends.

Perhaps that is what I am seeing.  Characters in short stories will, once this device diffuses among other writers, no longer learn lessons but will have experiences which seem like they ought to be full of meaning, and maybe they are, who knows.  But anyways, something happened.

There is no real reason to read Winesburg, Ohio with any of this in mind.  I am just describing what I saw.  It was like a haunted book, with shades from the future passing through the stories.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

reading some best sellers (from a hundred years ago) - "I want to get a general view of the whole problem"

Strange sensations reading American fiction lately.  Positive and negative.  The negative is that I am having a bit of an allergic reaction to The Custom of the Country (1913), both to its subject and style.  First, some impatience with the problems of shallow rich people, and second some with the best-sellerishness of the novel, although I do not know how much of a best seller it really was.  It was not a smash like The House of Mirth (1905).

The list of the best sellers of 1913 is a glimpse of an unknown world.  I have heard of maybe six of the books from the decade's best sellers, and read none.  What am I talking about?

I mean scenes like the one that begins Chapter XV, where two minor characters discuss the Problem of Divorce for four pages, in dialogue worthy of the future Hollywood films that presumably use quality authors like Wharton as their models:

“Are there sides already?  If so, I want to look down on them impartially from the heights of pure speculation.  I want to get a general view of the whole problem of American marriages.”

Or see an earlier scene, in Chapter X, in which two (other) minor characters discuss some financial scandal that presumably affects the plot later – I’m only halfway through the book – I hope everything works out well for everyone.  Wharton is vague about the financial details, understanding them about as well as I do.  The dialogue is pretty much screenplay-ready.

None of this has much to do with most of the novel, the good part, Undine Spragg’s rung by rung climb up the society ladder, at whatever the cost (to others).  All of this is terrific, and fiction is often at its best discovering the inner lives of shallow people, but I am enjoying it from a distance.

The Custom of the Country is the eighth Wharton book I have read within the last year or so.  Most of them have been short story collections.  Perfect commercial American magazine fiction of the first decade of the 20th century.  I enjoy it quite a lot, but I should probably take a break from it once I finish this novel.  Although the next thing Wharton does, chronologically, is to become a great French war hero.  Here I am whining about books about shallow people.

The commercial ideal, come to think of it, was also visible in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first collection of stories, Flappers and Philosophers (1920), where it was immediately obvious why he scored such a hit (This Side of Paradise, his first book, is from the same year).  These stories pop with energy.  They are zingy.  Specifically, the young women, the flappers, are enormous sparkly fun even if the story is fundamentally idiotic.  “The Offshore Pirate,” as an example, in which the flapper is captured by a pirate, ready for an actress to be dropped into the role.    Some kind of parable about Scott wooing Zelda probably.  Anyways, nonsense.  But I can see how readers of the Saturday Evening Post would be pleased to see that the new issue had a Fitzgerald story, just like the Scribner’s readers would feel when they say a Wharton story in the table of contents.  Yes, here’s the good stuff.