Wednesday, May 26, 2021

No, more likely, he has failed somehow to read them rightly - Robert Coover, James Sallis, and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

For some reason I paid $4.95 for Robert Coover’s Spanking the Maid (1982), although, if you can see the REGULAR PRICE, it’s $14!  For 94 pages!  This must have been twenty years ago.  Finally, I have read the book, as part of the ritual of getting rid of it.

Spanking the Maid is, as the title and cover suggest, a sadism and masochism novel, a struggle, possibly voluntary, possibly not, between a maid and her employer.  She is always making mistakes; he is consequently always spanking her, according to the rules of the manual.

The room is clean, the bed stripped and made, the maid whipped, why isn’t that enough?  Is there something missing in the manuals?  No, more likely, he has failed somehow to read them rightly.  Yet again.  (71)

Spanking the Maid is also, or I would say is primarily, a French New Novel by an American writer, about fiction about fiction about fiction, onward as far as you can stand.  Two characters, one setting (a bedroom with attached bath), with events repeated again and again, the perspective shifting from the maid to the employer and back, a few pages at a time.  The interest, the art, or alternatively the tedium, is in all the little variations in the events of the morning, all on the same template: the maid makes an error and is punished.  Again, perhaps as part of a sexual game, but perhaps not.  The woman eventually wins the game, for what that’s worth.

The internals rhymes and made/maid pun in the first sentence above are intentional and inventional – an intention/invention confusion is on the same page – and I would not have minded more of the linguistic play, more of the occasional Surrealist elements.  But mostly it is a text about repetition, like Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947), with less style.  

Speaking of whom – I am switching to James Sallis’s The Long-legged Fly (1992):

One of the plates read W. Percy, M.D., another R. Queneau.  The third one just read B.S.  I punched the button beside it.  (86)

That is New Orleans private investigator Lew Griffin on a missing-person case, invoking two of his novel’s ancestors, French and Existentialist-American.  The Long-legged Fly is less a mystery novel than one of those anti-mysteries I enjoy, full of literature and parody and an utter lack of resolution.  It takes a severe meta-fictional turn at the end, guaranteeing that most mystery fans, as I understand them, will loathe the book, but the character who writes detective novels notes that “[t]he books are very popular in France” (172), and in fact Sallis’s Lew Griffin novels are more popular, if not “very” popular, in France than in the U.S.  The Long-legged Fly was Sallis’s first novel, so it was a little weird to see him prophesy so well.  But he knew what he was writing – again, an Americanized existentialist French New Novel – so it was not such a crazy guess.

I’ll cram in one more detective novel, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s Murder in the Central Committee (1981, tr. Patrick Camilleri), the fifth of the Pepe Carvalho series.  I felt I finally needed to read one of the novels that gave Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano his name, so my interest was meta-fictional to begin with, before we find a murder suspect complaining that “Vázquez Montalbán can win the Planeta Prize” (60) – for an earlier Carvalho novel.

Or perhaps the suspect is praising the prize.  I'm not sure.  The Central Committee is of Spanish Communists, newly liberated from Franco’s repression.  Their chief is murdered, so our detective and his poor readers have to sit through a lot of theoretical Communist gibberish, and I do not want to say I understood it all.

In between, there is a lot of food, and some vivid sex.  Vázquez Montalbán writes with the kind of exuberant post-Franco excess I associate with Pedro Almodóvar, the sense artists seemed to have that they needed to catch up with the rest of Europe, in gusto, among other things:

Madrid markets provide a lesson in polychromic symmetry, with their plumed onion, metallic tuna-heads, glassy, finely dressed trouts, scraps of humanised cardboard boxes, oily Toro pastry, chorizos from Candelario, individually polished green beans from La Granja, porcelain chickpeas.  He bought some cooked tripe, capipota, frozen peas, the first fresh artichokes of the year, a head of garlic, almonds, pine kernels, a chunk of meaty tuna fish, a tin of anchovies, oil, onions and tomatoes.  (127)

I am not convinced the mystery as such is so special – it turns into more of a comic espionage anti-thriller – but the Madrid food is extraordinary.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Enjoying some English prose - Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory and J. R. Ackerley's My Father and Myself


“The greatest English writer of our time” declares the cover of my copy of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940).  It’s a 1982 Penguin, so I assume the “time” is circa 1982, but who knows.  It’s plausible, right, even without looking into the competition (I pick either Penelope Fitzgerald or Michael Moorcock, depending on mood).

Greene’s novels travel the world, feature a wide variety of characters, deal with big philosophical and social issues, have exciting forward-moving plots, and are written stylishly without seeming to fuss over style.  I can see how for some readers – maybe more in the past than now – Greene was the ideal novelist.  These are not my ideals, but I can see the fit.

The Power and the Glory is the one with the Mexican whiskey priest, on the run from the Tabasco police and a regime that is suppressing the Church and murdering every priest it can find.  And the state is also prohibitionist, even worse, especially for an illegal priest performing illegal masses using illegal wine.  As is often the case with Greene, this is all exaggerated, but true enough.  I guess the actual Tabasco state was not so thorough, but Greene’s character is the last priest, so even if a bad priest, a drunk with a child, he is by default a mythic figure.  Whether his courage or sense of duty or desperation also makes him a saint, a sinning saint, is one of the questions Greene works on.

Duty, faith, sin, death, plus chase scenes.  Greene is at this point an expert in what I think of as the flow of the novel, knowing when to shift from one character to another or from inside to outside a character’s head.   How to move characters from one room to another, or make time pass:

They fell silent and time passed, the shadow of the customs house shifted a few inches farther towards the river: the vulture moved a little, like the black hand of a clock. (I.1)

This is just the third page of the novel, so that blatantly symbolic vulture will not murder anyone for a while.  Greene is inventive with metaphor, as here with the first look at our hero the alcoholic priest:

He had protuberant eyes; he gave an impression of unstable hilarity, as if perhaps he had been celebrating a birthday, alone.  (same page)

The metaphors are a good part of the pleasant, mild strangeness that I find characteristic of Greene.

Look at that edition of J. R. Ackerley’s memoir My Father and Myself (1968), number 4 in the NYRB Classics series.  Think of how easy it was to collect them when there were only four.  Ackerley’s book has two strains.  First, it is a straightforward account of life as a gay man in England under a repressive legal regime, the only twists being the author’s neuroses, but who doesn’t have those.  In the introduction W. H. Auden, when not directly summarizing the book, seems mostly interested in exactly which sex acts Ackerley would or would not perform.  I though he was clear enough, so clear that it was easy to understand why the book was deliberately published posthumously.  Auden wanted more, though.

The second strain is the life of Ackerley’s father, especially some late revelations about his active sex life, including the strong possibility that he had for several years been the handsome “kept man” of a rich gay Count.  The memoir has an odd structure, in that Ackerley’s writes about his father’s early life first, then returns at the end, after his father’s death, to the information suggesting that everyone involved was homosexual, but I would guess that most readers figure it all out, and are meant to, right away, so the suspense is all in how Ackerley makes the discoveries.

My Father and Myself would be valuable as a gay memoir even if the father were a more ordinarily dull chap.  But he provides the narrative energy.

Ackerley’s style is the good English literary style of his time, possibly just a bit more direct to increase the rhetorical “hard truth-telling” effect, full of carefully placed phrases and clauses.  Picked almost at random:

I was a cherubic little boy with large blue starry eyes; my first nickname was “Girlie,” and at the public school older boys soon began to make advances to me.  (105)

Why is this better as one sentence than three?  The three clauses each contain information, but connecting them adds meaning.  A little more complexity, a little more meaning.  It is the kind of sentence I associate with Graves, Orwell, or Huxley, more intricate than the standard American equivalent, and always a pleasure to read.


Monday, May 24, 2021

Farewell to The Third Policeman and The Commitments - Dublin Soul was about to be born

Let’s say farewell to some books this week.

Isn’t that cover of The Commitments (1987) great?  It is even more or less accurate.  “Jimmy Rabbitte knew his music” (1) – he’s the blond kid holding the picture of James Brown.  He organizes a Dublin bar band that performs twenty-year-old American soul music.  A lot of the pleasure of the book comes from the representation of the performance of the music:

I do not expect anyone to read this page (105, source of the post’s title), but am using it as a visual object.  You can see what Doyle is doing, the simplified Joycean tools he is using.  I associate Joyce with interiority and complex referential patterns, but in Ulysses there is also plenty of people just goofing around in bars, the Dublin cacophony, and Doyle is in that tradition.  Lots of speech, lots of energy, lots of noise.

The particular song represented here is James Brown’s “Night Train” (1961), a key work of 20th century music, which, on this page, in this performance, by means of adding Dublin train stops to the song lyrics somehow converts an amateur bar band cover into an art work full of meaning to the handful of people lucky enough to hear it.  The Commitments is about – this is what it is actually about – how popular art creates meaning.  “Dublin Soul had been delivered.”

The 1993 movie, whatever its charms, completely omits “Night Train.”  Too complex, or something.

The Third Policeman is Flann O’Brien’s follow-up to At Swim Two-Birds (1939), ready to go in 1940 but not published until 1967 due to circumstances and incomprehension.

It was so faultless and delightful that it reminded me forcibly, strange and foolish as it may seem, of something I did not understand and had never even heard of. (Ch. 5)

It is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for grown-ups, where Alice is replaced by a philosophically-inclined Irish murderer and Wonderland is not a dream but something perhaps related.  There is a shared metaphysics, at least, and a similar Carroll-like love of mathematical paradox.  The quotation above is, in context, about a series of boxes-within-boxes that does not go on to infinity but gets close.  This line is about the transfer of atoms from bicycle to rider and rider to bicycle, making people half-bicycle and bicycles half-human:

‘Your talk,’ I said, ‘is surely the handiwork of wisdom because not one word of it do I understand.’ (Ch. 6)

It is just atomic theory.  It is so simple.

Perhaps it is because of the Alice template, just because I understand it better, but I personally find The Third Policeman quite a bit funnier and easier than the meta-fictional At Swim Two-Birds, where fictional characters take vengeance on their creator.  Parts of Policeman are just comedy sketches, proto-Python.  A separate novel, about an insane philosopher and his cutthroat commentators, develops in the increasingly long footnotes.  Goofy exclamations are everywhere: “‘Great holy suffering indiarubber bowls of brown stirabout!’” (Ch. 6).  My kind of humor.  Perversely, then, I plan to sell the book I like more and keep the other, since it is the latter I want to understand better.  It is probably just as funny, once I get to know it.

Farewell to these jolly books.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Dismantling the library - if only for the delight it would have given me to get rid of them

Wuthering Expectations is not moving, despite its recent transformation from a blog to a newsletter, but the Amateur Reader, the actual human, meaning me, is.  From the prairie to the sea, perhaps.  What will happen to my books?  I am moving every one of them, but maybe not more than once.

In other words, I am deaccessioning.  Lightening the load.  Getting rid of a lot of books.  My current mindset is ruthless and brutal.

Lately I have been reading exclusively from my shelves, evaluating, often saying farewell.  Enjoy your new home, book.

Joseph Epstein wrote, in 2000 or so, about his own purge of his library, from around 2,000 books to 400, in “Books Won’t Furnish a Room” (collected in In a Cardboard Belt!, 2007).  The essay is really a way to play with his collection one last time, to wander around the shelves.  A last chance for nostalgia, or jokes.  “I wish I had owned some of the French literary theorists, if only for the delight it would have given me to get rid of them,” (102).  He keeps all of his Henry James, Proust, Santayana, and Beerbohm.  “I would love to tell you what the deeper meaning of my love for them is, but I cannot because I gave away my six volumes of the Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud” (105).

Epstein was influenced by his experience as an estate executor for sociologist Edward Shils, whose Hyde Park apartment, including the spare bathroom, was packed with 15,000 books.  “I hated to see [the collection] broken up, for it was in itself a work of art,” and Shils had “put them to the highest use” (98).  But they seemed “inert, cumbersome, almost grotesque” without Shils.  I was reminded of Epstein’s essay when James Wood published “Shelf Life” in the New Yorker in 2011, the account of his difficult struggle with his father-in-law’s mass of books.  He vowed not to leave the problem of his own library to anyone else.  I wonder how that has gone.  Patrick Kurp has a nice post about some similar essays as well as Epstein’s, on the job of what Kurp calls “you, the free-lance librarian.”  That is how it feels now, certainly.

My principles of deaccession, all of which are subsets of “know thyself”:

1.  Travellin’ light.  My “giant personal library” fantasy has been gradually replaced by a “divides his time” fantasy.  You know, in author bios, the writer who “divides his time between Paris, Florence, and Schenectady,” like a Henry James character?  Aren’t those writers the worst?  I want to be one of them, except in cheaper cities.  Store the remaining books in Schenectady, I guess.

2.  My library is more of a working library than most people’s, although less than yours, of course, but after fifteen years of internet literary criticism I have a good idea of which books do the work and which are never opened.  The slackers can go.

3.  Time has passed.  I pulled Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments (1987) off the shelves recently.  I had last read it 28 years ago, when the 1993 movie came out.  It’s almost a unique book in its energetic, meaningful use of pop music, and I was thrilled to read it again.  Love it. Out the door!  Farewell, book!  If I want to read it again 28 years from now – when I will be 79 years old – I bet I can find a copy, perhaps in a

4.  Library.  Epstein is not sure he wants to live in a library.  I agree – I want to live next to a library.  The Lyon Public Library was my home away from home away from home when I was in France.  I have become comfortable with the idea that professional librarians can manage and store my books for me.  Austen, Dickens, Faulkner, Nabokov, Morrison – you know, I tell myself, good libraries have those.  And a good public university library has more than that.

If I were moving away from libraries, I would be tempted to bring every single dang book with me.  But I would not because of

5. The internet.  It has changed everything.  I would never have guessed, in the 1990s, how easy it would become to search for images.  So most of my art books, gone.  Ordinary paperbacks of public domain books, gone.  In 28 years, the American public domain will have reached 1953.  Before I went to France, I trained myself to read books online, and it did take some training.  But now I have books on my computer, books on my phone, books everywhere.

In an ironic, aggravating footnote, I was not able to find my copy of Joseph Epstein’s In a Cardboard Belt!, which must be in the house somewhere, but is not with all of Epstein’s other books, presumably because I had it out for something else I wrote who knows when.  But the book is, yes, available on the internet, and I used the scanned copy to find the quotations I wanted.

I’m keeping my Epstein books.  Anything I bought in France.  Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four, yes, but Kirby and Lee’s Thor has already been sent to my nephews.  Library of America Henry James stays, but those beat up old Penguins, I don’t know.  The battered paperback Bleak House I bought for 18 cents (!) in 1990, which I have read twice and my wife has read once, that goes.  Got my money’s worth there.  I just pulled my old Penguin Balzacs, since I’m not allowed to read those in English anymore.  Maybe all of the translated French should go.  No, the Richard Howard Racines and Molières, those I’ll keep.

Maybe I’ll write updates like this all summer long.  I doubt this is so interesting, but it is sure taking up a lot of my mental energy.  “Sometimes reading supplies the most cunning of all means of avoiding thought,” Epstein worries (107).  Too true.  And now much of my thought boils down to “Yes or no?”  Mostly, no, no, no.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

A D. H. Lawrence Women in Love note dump with some more general observations - the struggle to get out

I meant to write some kind of D. H. Lawrence summary whatnot after my “Lawrence-influenced writers of the 1930s and 1940s” mini-series.  This, a little late, is that.  I made the mistake of reading some of my earlier writing about Lawrence, where I found that I already wrote most or all of what I wanted to write this time.  Reminder to myself: no one remembers or cares.

Half of my motive is found in the notes I took on Women in Love (1920) and never used, just amazing  things.  Some are single-sentence distilled Lawrence:

He took off his clothes, and sat down naked among the primroses, moving his feet softly among the primroses, his legs, his knees, his arms right up to the arm-pits, lying down and letting them touch his belly, his breasts.  (Ch. 8, “Breadalby”)

It was evident she had a strange passion to dance before the sturdy, handsome cattle.  (Ch. 14, “Water-party”)

Ursula was afraid that he would stone the moon again…  “Why should you hate the moon?”  (Ch. 19, “Moony”)

Many readers may well hate this sort of thing.  “’Was it hate?’” Ursula’s moon-stoning companion answers, a good question. 

But there is also some good nature writing, and some interesting aesthetic theorizing, sometimes combined:

The heavy gold glamour of approaching sunset lay over all the colliery district, and the ugliness overlaid with beauty was like a narcotic to the senses. (Ch. 9, “Coal-dust”)

A number of lines, as with that last phrase, feel like self-description, or even self-critique (“’Women and love, there is no greater tedium,’ he cried,” Ch. 30, “Snowed Up”).  Meta-fiction:

He turned in confusion. There was always confusion in speech. Yet it must be spoken. Whichever way one moved, if one were to move forwards, one must break a way through. And to know, to give utterance, was to break a way through the walls of the prison as the infant in labour strives through the walls of the womb. There is no new movement now, without the breaking through of the old body, deliberately, in knowledge, in the struggle to get out.  (Ch. 14)

Sorry, I was wrong, there is lots of aesthetic theorizing, often explicitly that, like in the bonkers scene like where a group of nude men stand around a West African statue of a nude woman and baldly debate its status:

“Why is it art?” Gerald asked, shocked, resentful.

“It conveys a complete truth,” said Birkin.  “It contains the whole truth of that state, whatever you feel about it.”  (Ch. 7, “Fetish”)

That last line fits well with my own changing notions of Lawrence, and to be honest with art in general, that fussing much over whether I like or love or hate something is not interesting.  Following “the struggle to get out,” to express some kind of (personal and partial, not whole) truth, is of sufficient interest, even when the results violate good taste and good sense.

Lawrence sometimes writes well, and often badly*; sometimes likable and sometimes loathsome.  I take his greatest innovation to be the introduction of some unusual, even extreme, psychological states to English fiction.  The co-existence of love and hate is especially important, whether between lovers or parents and children.  Lawrence freed a number of later writers to represent more oddballs.  He made fiction broader.  Sometimes he seems to believe that his weirdos are typical, which can be exasperating.  His great “men versus women” theme brings out his best and worst ideas.  “Men, and love, there was no greater tedium” (see above).  I think one reason his writing about animals, in fiction or poetry, seems especially good is that even when it is about sex it gives him some distance.

Is this really any kind of summary?  Reading a lot of Lawrence has helped me understand other writers, and even his more dubious works have always given me something to think about.  Good enough.

* Lawrence sometimes uses rhetorical constructions that signify good writing to me, and often uses signifiers that I think of as “bad writing.”