Read a handful of Crapsey's elegantly distilled cinquins that felt lost among the endless pages of a large anthology and was immediately impressed and...moreRead a handful of Crapsey's elegantly distilled cinquins that felt lost among the endless pages of a large anthology and was immediately impressed and enamored—here was a poet who seemed to embody all of the qualities of Imagism without having any known knowledge or contact with H.D., Pound, Lowell, Aldington and others would make it one of the most recognizable poetic advances in 20th century poetry.
Turns out there are just over a two dozen cinquains in existence, for unfortunately Crapsey died of tuberculosis 1914 at the horrifyingly young age of 36. Her reputation rests solely on the clipped 5 line cinquain that she developed, which many have mistakenly assumed are based on the haiku, tanka and other forms found in traditional Japanese poetry, but are actually rooted in Crapsey's extensive work on English language prosody, particularly Keats. But the best of the cinquains still feel radically, innovatively modernist, which is why Crapsey has been characterized as an "unintentional Imagist," which might or might not do her unique poetic innovations justice.
My two personal favorites:
"Niagra Seen on a night in November"
How frail Above the bulk Of crashing water hangs, Autumnal, evanescent, wan, the Moon.
Listen.. With faint dry sound, Like steps of passing ghosts, The leaves, frost-crisp'd, break from the trees And fall.
Susan Sutton Smith has brought together all of the available material related to Crapsey, and tellingly, it all fits into a modest-sized volume. I only lightly perused the rest of the poetry, which is of the traditional late-Romantic sort that still lingered around after the turn of the century, but several excerpts I've read are lovely, so I do plan to return someday to give it a more thorough read. Smith's well-researched biography and critical assessments are also insightful and accessible.
A wonderful find, I just wish there was more. (less)
I found this both repelling and compulsive, and the more repulsed I became the less capable I seemed of putting it down. I was hooked just several pag...moreI found this both repelling and compulsive, and the more repulsed I became the less capable I seemed of putting it down. I was hooked just several pages in, enamored with the elegant, elegiac tone of Charles Arrowby's attempts at composing a memoir/diary after exiling himself to a remote seaside home to live in monastic isolation. Via Arrowby, Murdoch's prose takes on a sea-like quality, the ebb-and-flow of memories and musings churning together present and past to the point where the edges of reality and unreality begin to blur imperceptibly. I settled in for what I fully expected to be more or less an intelligent and eerie psychological thriller.
But just as it was not meant for Arrowby to enjoy his solitude, so I was quickly jumbled out of any conceptions that I was in for a graceful memory piece. Suddenly figures from Arrowby's past begin showing up uninvited at his doorstep, culminating with the unexpected reappearance of a lost first love, setting off a string of increasingly erratic behavior that quickly threaten to become dangerous.
It took a while for me to adjust to such a drastic change of narrative trajectory, but as it went along I began to appreciate the grand guignol absurdity of it all. And it wasn't, I admit, until just about the very end that I realized how the incongruent-seeming opening does indeed set up nicely the rest of the novel: reported to be the premiere interpreter of Shakespeare of his day, isn't it natural, maybe even inevitable that Arrowby's life takes on an expansive Shakespearian theatricality?
"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages."
And that kind of sums up my final response to The Sea, The Sea—creaky, isolated Shruff End is not the place of escape and seclusion Arrowby intends it to be, but is merely an empty stage upon which the figures of his past, present and possibly his future appear with a theatrical punctuality, reciting their lines, performing their small roles and disappearing again into the wings again until called upon again to reappear on cue around Arrowby as he plays his "many parts," from a wizened Prospero to a tragic Lear to a pathetically misguided attempt at Romeo and Juliet that quickly deteriorates into a truly horrific parody of Taming of the Shrew.
Did I enjoy The Sea, The Sea? I can't honestly say that I did. I'm not even sure that I liked it per se. But it did compel me to descend into a unique type of claustrophobic madness, creating a literary experience of a type that I've never quite experienced before, which is saying something indeed. My true reaction is suspended somewhere between three and four stars, but considering that the only other Murdoch novel I've read has continued to grow in stature in my memory, I gladly give the novel the benefit of the doubt and round my rating up.
The past and the present are so close, so almost one, as if time were an artificial teasing out of material which longs to join, to interpenetrate, and to become heavy and very small like some of those heavenly bodies scientists tell us of."(less)
"In English, or at least in American, many subtleties of the dialogue escape me, but in The Red Harvest the dialogues, written in a masterful way, are...more"In English, or at least in American, many subtleties of the dialogue escape me, but in The Red Harvest the dialogues, written in a masterful way, are such as to give pointers to Hemingway or even to Faulkner, and the entire narrative is ordered with skill and implacable cynicism. In that very special type of thing it is, I believe, it is the most remarkable I have read" -Andre Gide, Journals, 1943
Far be it from me to argue with M. Gide, so I won't. But can I say that I agree with everything he says, and still admit that this just isn't my thing? My first experience with Hammett was back in high school where The Maltese Falcon left me distinctly unimpressed; I was curious if time had made me more receptive to Hammett's hard-edged, steel-splinter prose style, and the answer is… no, not really. Far more comprehensible than Chandler, but not nearly as fun to read, which is exactly what I read detective fiction for in the first place. (less)
April is apparently the cruelest month, but my nomination would probably be those four weeks or so spanning the middle of October on up to Thanksgivin...moreApril is apparently the cruelest month, but my nomination would probably be those four weeks or so spanning the middle of October on up to Thanksgiving; I can't speak for anyone else, but for anybody on an academic calendar it's an interminably long period with not even a single three day weekend for some kind of brief respite, and Thanksgiving break is reached more or less in a state of exhaustion. It was during this period that I realized that if I couldn't actually take a vacation I was going to take a literary one, and I took this off the shelf, which I had been saving for just such an occasion.
And it pretty much did the trick. It's a lovely novel, and I took a long, leisurely amount of time to read it, picking it up on occasions when I just couldn't bring myself to read anything else (even though there was always so much more that should and needed to have been read) or during bouts of insomnia caused by incessant thinking over what I still needed to get done. There's not much I feel like I can say about this novel, not that I feel much needs to be said; it's more or less how four British women, similar only in a vague but profound sense of dissatisfaction with their lives, on a whim rent a villa on the Italian coast for the titular month. But what seems like an indulgent lark quickly blossoms into four weeks of rapturous transformation for all four women (as well as several individuals they are close to). Once the women arrive in Italy the narrative is sustained through the type of problems such as "oh, how is Mrs. X going to respond to Mrs. Y doing Z?", but that's a great part of its appeal—it's not a matter of if a character is going to undergo positive mental, emotional and even physical transformation, but a matter of how much. Really, Von Arnim manages to do a whole lot with material that many other writers would have a hard time using to sustain a short story (though Von Arnim doesn't realize that a little landscape description goes a long way).
In a curious coincidence, in 1922 Eliot proclaimed April "the cruellest month," while the very same year Von Arnim declared it enchanted. Though the traditional literary canon would disagree, I have to side with Von Arnim on this one.
"Rose clasped her hands tight round her knees. How passionately she longed to be important to somebody again—not important on platforms, not important as an asset in an organisation, but privately important, just to one other person, quite privately, nobody else to know or notice. It didn't seem much to ask in a world so crowded with people, just to have one of them, only one out of all the millions, to oneself. Somebody who needed on, who thought of one, who was eager to come to one—oh, oh how dreadfully one wanted to be precious!" (less)
Really only for die-hard fans and/or those who are already interested in this type of idiosyncratic marginalia. Distinguishing a "notebook" from a "jo...moreReally only for die-hard fans and/or those who are already interested in this type of idiosyncratic marginalia. Distinguishing a "notebook" from a "journal" or "diary" might at times come off as nit-picky, but it's an important one in this situation, as this is less a personal record than a ramshackle collection of sentence fragments, long lists of slang, a few rather unreadable writing exercises, and many excerpts of articles and essays from other writers that Chandler evidently drew inspiration from in some way (and while they might not be of the utmost interest in and of themselves, they're interesting in that Chandler found them interesting). Also included are a few more formal pieces, such as his published review of Diamonds Are Forever, a study of American vs. British English, and a previously unpublished screed outlining Hollywood's treatment of screenwriters that he ends up characterizing as "a testament of failure." The essay, certainly one of the best things about this collection, provides an illuminating, ground zero perspective on the collision of a screenwriter's creative impulses in the face of an unapologetic Hollywood machine (one choice bon mot: "integrity is a nice word, and you hear it a great deal in Hollywood, but you seldom meet the quality itself").
Also included is the short story "English Summer: A Gothic Romance," a piece Chandler was reportedly very fond of and held hopes for reworking into a full-length novel. It is, well, immediately apparent that this would have been a horrible idea. The story, interestingly, reverses Chandler's usual narrative strategy—rather than uncovering the unexpectedly poetic in squalid urban spaces, he begins with the picturesque English coast and attempts to uncover the unsavory elements lurking beneath. And while I'm sure that if Chandler had pursued this tactic in earnest he could very well have mastered it in time, but as is this is a British romance-mystery as pedestrian as it is cliché, the type, unfortunately, involving such exchanges as "'I'm afraid you're flirting with me'/ 'I'm afraid I am'"). The proceedings are livened up with the occasional Chandler witticism ("I had gone, a little to be near her, a little because asking me was a sort of insult, and I like insults, from some people"), but they come off here as painfully shoehorned, as incongruous as memorable. It's not made clear if Chandler considered this a complete work, but as is it's (at best) a dry run or even an early draft, which means, I suppose, that it's perfect for including in an informal "notebook" such as this. (less)
Had an overwhelming craving for a dose of Chandler's sordid urban poetry and opted for this, one of his novels that I've read only once. Promptly proc...moreHad an overwhelming craving for a dose of Chandler's sordid urban poetry and opted for this, one of his novels that I've read only once. Promptly proceeded to devour it within the course of 36 hours. Usually not considered one of the highlights of Chandler's compact oeuvre, about halfway through it struck me how difficult it is to distinguish between "great" Chandler and the "merely good," as this is really terrific stuff.
But after finishing it became clear again why this isn't one of Chandler's finest moments: after a rip-roaring first half, it quickly and inexplicably goes very flat in the second. Less terse verbal shoot-outs between Marlowe and his jowly, draconian client Mrs. Murdoch, and less witty dealings with the quintessentially Chandler-esque mélange of colorful, perfectly delineated support characters. In their place are looooong explanatory chapters, typically with representatives of the law, which seem to drag on endlessly. Chandler himself chalked up to his disappointment with the novel to it having "no likable characters,"* which does become a problem upon the conclusion when (for me, at least), I couldn't muster up much interest who ended up being the good guys and who the bad.
But even if The High Window ultimately doesn't reach the heights of Chandler's best work, the fact remains that second-tier Chandler is still better than most.
Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of the BFI Film Classics Series, even if my actual experiences with it have been decidedly mixed so far, ranging f...moreDon't get me wrong, I love the idea of the BFI Film Classics Series, even if my actual experiences with it have been decidedly mixed so far, ranging from disappointed indifference to rather unabashed pleasure. David Thomson's contribution on Howard Hawks's classic The Big Sleep (1946), which he professes in the first pages is his favorite film, falls somewhere in between: compulsively readable, but left me wishing for a bit more. As in something resembling actual analysis of the film. A line in the book, which is quoted in the synopsis on the back, makes the claim that "The Big Sleep inaugurates a post-modern, camp, satirical view of movies being about other movies that extends to the New Wave and Pulp Fiction." A tantalizing claim, right? But that's pretty much all Thomson has to say on the topic, other than some brief thoughts on how the film's last minute push for Bogey/Bacall sex and glamour over comprehensible plotting makes the film "one of the most formally radical pictures ever made in Hollywood." YES. But sadly that is about all Thomson has to say on that subject.
Instead, he sticks close to his talents and the majority of the tome is devoted to detailed autobiographical analysis, something I can't fault him for (he's made quite a reputation for himself by doing so). There's a lot of juicy details about Hawks and his second wife Nancy "Slim" Hawks, who Thomson claims Bacall's distinctive screen persona was modeled after, and deserves more credit because of it. It's also a nice description of how Betty Perske was transformed into Betty Bacal and then transformed into Lauren Bacall, Screen Icon. And Thomson certainly knows how to craft elegant sentences, and I was often reminded of the work of the celebrated James Harvey.
So, yeah. If, as-is, this was, say, the first half of Thomson's study, I'd be extremely impressed. But I was really hoping to read an analysis of one of my own favorite films as engaging as it was entertaining (because no one is looking for dry theory in this series), and in the end I really didn't get that. (less)
This is the kind of intimate and evocative book that one imagines oneself reading during a long, languorous afternoon in a cafe or while curled up in...moreThis is the kind of intimate and evocative book that one imagines oneself reading during a long, languorous afternoon in a cafe or while curled up in big comfortable chair besides a sunny window, allowing oneself to be caught up in the delicate strands of thought, memory and whimsy Guibert uses to pattern this brief collection of essays, vignettes and assorted musings.
Unfortunately, I didn't read any of Ghost Image in such conditions. Rather, I read almost all of it while being jostled during my daily work commute on San Francisco public transportation, vying for all-too scarce seating, trying to maintain balance through unnecessarily abrupt braking, sandwiched between fellow commuters just as desperate for a cup of morning coffee or anxious to just get home as I was, etc. As such, I wish to apologize to this book—I don't feel like my reading experience did it justice.
But perhaps that pays Guibert a great compliment—because I did want to keep reading in such unideal reading situations, to see where Guibert was going to lead me next. The best sections, for me, were the anecdotes, often serving as a portrait of a person, that often functioned as short stories—the opening memory of "discovering" his mother while taking her portrait, an encounter with a curmudgeonly neighboring pharmacist, the lessons learned from a professional photographic retoucher. There are also a particularly wonderful meditations on the nature of old home movies and polaroid photographs.
From moment to moment this was enthralling reading, but in the end I couldn't help but feel I bit underwhelmed, as if it ultimately hadn't added up to a whole lot. But upon further consideration, I realize that my less-than-optimal reading experience might have caused me to miss the subtle rhythms and wispy, cobweb-like connections and associations I suspect Guibert used to string all of these disparate fragments together. As such, I will simply say that I fully look forward to reading this collection again, and next time around hopefully catch what I might very well have missed. (less)
As I am not an aspiring novelist or creative writer of any kind it seems only fair to admit upfront that I might not exactly be Lamott's ideal audienc...moreAs I am not an aspiring novelist or creative writer of any kind it seems only fair to admit upfront that I might not exactly be Lamott's ideal audience, though I am interested in other forms of writing and hey, the title itself claims that this is as much about "life" as "writing," right?
And there were sections and even whole chapters that I will continue to carry with me, that inspired me or made me pause for a moment in consideration or even made me guffaw out loud (no easy feat). I took this up in the first place after a conversation with a cousin of mine, a creative writing teacher and accomplished writer in her own right, and confided some of the problems I faced while writing my thesis. She told me Lamott's anecdote that gives this text its name, and recommended I give it a look when I have a chance. And she was absolutely right—it was exactly the advice I could have used to maintain some kind of perspective during the thesis-writing process.
So it definitely wasn't the content that was the problem here—I quickly skimmed the chapters that seemed less applicable for me and gave my full attention to sections that were relevant to my own situation. So I'll just put it bluntly: I just don't like Lamott's writing style. AT ALL. In fact, it's the type of writing style that I generally despise and avoid as much as possible—kind of banter-y and hyper self-aware, peppered with lots of pop culture references that are instantly dated, and relentlessly (and I mean relentlessly) self-deprecating. Not that I can't see the massive appeal of this approach—it creates an almost instantaneous sense of intimacy, as if the author has been your best friend for years and years and years and all of this is personal advice being told to you during a lengthy conversation on the phone.
In other words, it's exactly the style a bazillion creative writing students strive to replicate in their own work, which is why I now understand why Lamott's name was always mentioned in hushed, almost reverential tones in the creative writing department back when I was an undergrad. I have mentioned elsewhere my distaste for this type of writing, and to be fair, Lamott is certainly the best—and most readable—writer of this style I have ever come across. It's just that reading this took me back almost instantly to all of the mundane pieces that were dutifully workshopped in every creative writing classes I have ever taken (of which my own contributions were just as mundane, I'll be the first to admit) and which has been seeping with increasing frequency into more official venues (Salon.com, Huffington Post, etc), much to my dismay. So my apologies to Ms. Lamott—in many ways I'm faulting her writing not on its own merits but on the pale imitations that she helped inspire, but in the end it was just something I could never quite manage to get around. (less)
Biography is something I very rarely take up in my reading (I much prefer memoirs, or personal diaries and journals whenever possible), and it's even...moreBiography is something I very rarely take up in my reading (I much prefer memoirs, or personal diaries and journals whenever possible), and it's even more rare for me to actually read a biography all the way through, usually opting instead to read chapters or sections specific to my interests.
I had fully expected this to be more or less my experience with Utopia Parkway, currently the only biography available on the life of nonconformist artist Joseph Cornell, whose work I have become increasingly enchanted by over the last few months and have been studying in greater and greater detail. But I quickly became so engrossed in the specifics of Cornell's life that I ended up reading the whole thing, and it's probably the closest I've experienced to a "page turner" in a good while—I could hardly put it down.
Deborah Solomon definitely had her work cut out for her by taking on this subject. In the various accounts and analyses of Cornell's work and life I've read so far most seem to struggle with accounting for the complexity of Cornell's utter unconventionality—in some he comes off as a whimsical, almost child-like recluse under the domineering thumb of his "dear Mama," in some he comes off like a marginalized hermit willfully on the fringes of art and society, and yet other descriptions portray him as a creepy voyeur-type whose largely repressed sexual urges drive his work, which attempts to dominate the various female figures he held as his muses. As Solomon proves, Cornell was indeed all of these things, but also many more—all of these characterizations are like individual facets that change shape and color and even disappear with just the slightest change of perspective. Cornell emerges as an endless and endlessly baffling bundle of contradictions, and she does a remarkable job of accounting for many of them, which is often done by her adamance to contextualize both Cornell's life and the art that it inspired within larger social and artistic movements.
One review currently on this site found this book "kind of a downer, about a sad and very limited life," a description that rather took me aback, because as we find out through Utopia Parkway, Cornell's life can be described as such in only the most limited of ways—what is remarkable is how rich of a life he seemed capable of creating for himself, largely within the carefully controlled confines of his own home. But frankly, he managed to know just about everyone (from Duchamp to Breton to Toumanova to Sontag to Yoko Ono and just about anybody who's anybody in between). Which is ultimately what proves to be so inspiring: so many life stories of famous people and artists in particular seem to involve extensive travels, glittering parties, intense heartbreaks and ecstasies in equal alternating measure, all of the glamorous, easily romanticized trappings of what many of us like to consider "REAL living." Cornell points to possible alternatives, and how richness of the mind, creativity and great accomplishment can take other forms as well.
This probably isn't the ideal place to start one's explorations of Cornell's work (it's much more enriching when one at least has some idea of some of the work Solomon constantly alludes to), but an essential supplement for anybody who's already a fan.(less)
Full of fascinating insights and observations by the master cinematographer, and the images are endlessly gorgeous and evocative (not that I can imagi...moreFull of fascinating insights and observations by the master cinematographer, and the images are endlessly gorgeous and evocative (not that I can imagine one could expect otherwise).(less)
"The living and the dead. Braided together. Woven together. An immense tapestry taking in centuries."
A little over 100 pages into this novel I stumble...more"The living and the dead. Braided together. Woven together. An immense tapestry taking in centuries."
A little over 100 pages into this novel I stumbled across the above lines, and even though I had another 500+ pages to go, I instinctively sensed that I had discovered the key to this immense, sprawling narrative, a description of what Oates was attempting to accomplish with Bellefleur. Literally spanning centuries, seven different generations and involving dozens of distinct characters, this is the story of the Bellefleurs, a privileged and moneyed family of the type usually characterized as American aristocracy. But Oates intentionally shatters her story into countless little shards of narrative so that with each chapter—all which function as their own stand-alone vignettes or even short stories—the reader is pulled between vastly different times and characters, with no obvious correlation from one to the next. At first it's disorienting, but Oates does eventually create the vague impression that the entire thing is indeed operating by its own internal logic and intricately designed rhythms. Frankly, this is a novel to get lost in, and one must be willing to make that decision intentionally.
Because it's literally impossible to keep things straight from one page to the next, sometimes even one paragraph to the next—there are many examples of two characters sharing the same name, and this family's history often seems to have a habit of operating on an endless loop. In this way I was reminded of Oates's own description of another novel that often came to mind while reading Bellefleur:
"Wuthering Heights... ambitiously diffuses its consciousness among several contrasting perspectives; its structure is not so complicated as it initially appears, but chronology is fractured, not linear, and certain of its most powerful images... require a second reading to be fully comprehended. What is mystery becomes irony what is opaque becomes translucent poetry. There are numerous flash-forwards, as well; and a mirroring of characters across generations."*
Reading back over that description of Brontë's novel, it seems clear to me that this was exactly the modus operandi behind Oates's own work. And while Oates doesn't quite reach the same heights of feverish ecstasies of her model, she did manage to create countless characters and images and actions in Bellefleur that I won't soon forget.
Which is not to say that I loved this novel unconditionally—several hundred pages in I knew which characters I didn't find very interesting and began to skim the chapters they appeared in, and I really did have to force myself to finish the last 100 pages or so (which is a shame, because it really does all lead up to an unexpected and incendiary conclusion).
Basically I wanted a leisurely summer read—"a voluptuous novel crammed with people and events," as Oates herself called it**—and that's exactly what I got. And for the most part, I enjoyed it thoroughly.
An experiment, and one ultimately doomed to failure; its failure, however, is also its greatest strength. It's essentially an extended list of details...moreAn experiment, and one ultimately doomed to failure; its failure, however, is also its greatest strength. It's essentially an extended list of details ("some cars dive into the parking lot./ an 86 [bus] passes by. A 70 passes by," etc, etc), something that would seem to make for a rather dull read.
But I found it one of the most invigorating reading experiences I've had in a long while. Not particularly, I admit, because of the text itself, but in the way that it suddenly made me breathlessly attuned to my surroundings, conscious of the tiny details of a particular time and a particular space that are easily (usually?) overlooked, ignored. I read this slenderest of texts as I sat at the small table in the front bay windows of a cafe I discovered last week and have returned to several times since, looking out on a side street that heretofore had seemed tranquil and practically empty (at least by San Francisco standards), but as I read it suddenly seemed bristling with activity, and I became hyper-aware of the pedestrians criss-crossing my direct field of vision, casually walking dogs, pushing strollers or talking on phones, of the wind occasionally causing the overhanging expanses of tree leaves to shudder uncontrollably, of the slightest glimpse of figures appearing in windows of the facing row of elegant Victorian-style houses…
And for that all-too-brief hour or so, the "infraordinary"—Perec's term for "the markings and manifestations of the everyday that consistently escape our attention as they compose the essence of lives"—suddenly seemed quite extraordinary.
[I didn’t think of taking a photo myself, but I’m glad someone else did! I was at the table on the opposite window, however, and when I’ve been there there hasn’t been so much activity outside… I have no idea what the white stuff is on the window though. Photo by sparkle glowplug, found on flickr.]
It's almost fail-proof material: the fascinating criss-crossing connections—both professionally and personally—of the queer* men whose art and dedicat...moreIt's almost fail-proof material: the fascinating criss-crossing connections—both professionally and personally—of the queer* men whose art and dedication to artistic ideals not only helped establish, in the words of cover synopsis, "a world of gay aesthetics and desire in art that was groundbreaking at the time and remarkable even today," but left an indelible mark on 20th century American art and culture in general. Though the (loooong) title indicates the three figures Leddick specifically focuses upon in his study, it quickly becomes apparent that the life work of these three men intersect with so many others that whole sections, if not entire chapters, become devoted to other individuals, including Glenway Wescott, Monroe Wheeler, Pavel Tchelitchev, Chick Austin, Jared French, Charles Henri Ford, and countless others. Leddick is particularly adept at evoking the vibrancy of the era and all of its various social, artistic, and sexual layers and nuances, and I appreciated the way that he attempts to analyze the vast set of interconnections between an artist's persona life and their artistic output, and a certain painting or photograph often serves as a kaleidoscopic prism through which to explore a wide array of topics historical, personal and otherwise. It certainly makes for an engaging and quick read.
This all said, I still have significant issues with this study. Leddick is also a fiction writer, and there were a number of times I wish that he let the material speak for itself instead of embroidering it with fiction-inspired literary techniques, as sometimes the tones becomes rather annoyingly gossipy, and I skipped all of the fictionalized chapters written in the second person ("you've worked with Miss Dietrich a couple of times and she can be quite a bitch," etc). These section, thankfully, are helpfully printed in italics and easy to spot and skim. It's not that I was looking for a sober, ponderous academic analysis of these figures—that would almost certainly be to miss the spirit of this particular milieu—but sometimes Leddick's approach undercuts his subject matter in a way I'm assuming he did not intend.
And really, it must, be said: if this book implicitly suggests some kind of a gay aesthetic sensibility, the tacky hideousness of this cover stands as a direct affront to it. The elegant Platt Lynes and Kirstein in particular would be horrified. For shame.
*I'm hesitant to categorically lump all of the individuals detailed here simply as "gay" in the same way that the book does, as many of these individuals did not have sexual relationships exclusively with men, and would resist categorizing their sexuality in such a rigid manner. As such, I fall back on the pedantically academic, equally anachronistic "queer," as it allows for a certain fluidity of sexuality and sexual expression that more accurately reflects historical realities. (less)
Insightful, incisive... and ultimately more than a bit of exhausting. I'm drawn to the structure and style, which is primarily made up of reflective f...moreInsightful, incisive... and ultimately more than a bit of exhausting. I'm drawn to the structure and style, which is primarily made up of reflective fragments that are arranged in associative clusters of memories and content, but the text's greatest quality—the deep immersion into the author's psyche and his personal obsessions and desires—is also, ultimately, its greatest drawback (after a while one pines for some critical distance).
But as someone like myself who is interested in opera in a cursory manner, it's a nice crash-course on its history and many of its major figures and works, presented in a manner that is accessible through Koestenbaum's almost excessively personal and often very witty approach to the subject. And of course, as the title indicates, this is all intricately intertwined with discourses of queer sexuality in the 20th and 21st centuries, and it leads to some really beautiful connections and observations.
"When I as a gay person go backward to find or write the story of my sexuality, I am making it up, because sexuality has no absolute origin or motivation, though because sexuality is structured like a narrative, with crux, climax, and denouement, we are always hoping to unknot its beginning. Playing a record, I move backward in time to the imagined scene of recording... playing a record is like playing the Ouija, speaking to the dead, asking questions of an immensity that only throws back the echo of one's futile question, a repeated 'myself, myself...'" (less)
I had hoped that during the time that has lapsed between having had to read this and Moby-Dick or, The Whale as an undergraduate and now I would have...moreI had hoped that during the time that has lapsed between having had to read this and Moby-Dick or, The Whale as an undergraduate and now I would have warmed up a bit more to Melville, who along with Dickens holds the dubious distinction as being my least favorite "canonical" authors.
No dice. I found this just as difficult to read and even more difficult to sustain any kind of interest in, and was most grateful for the relative brevity of Billy Budd, especially as Melville's writing style can charitably be described as impenetrable, if not at times actually unreadable.
The thing is, I really, really WANT to like Melville. I love reading interpretations of Melville's writing, as they are of the type that fracture and fragment under postmodern analysis, bursting with utterly fascinating queer resonances. Certainly the all-but-slavering characterization of the titular character throughout the novella is one of the glories of homoerotic 19th century literature:
"He was young; and despite his all but fully developed frame, in aspect looked even younger than he really was, owing to a lingering adolescent expression in the as yet smooth face all but feminine in purity of natural complexion but where, thanks to his seagoing, the lily was quite suppressed and the rose had some ado visibly to flush through the tan."
Of course, Billy's corporeal beauty is rather problematically utilized by Melville as a symbol for purity, innocence, and moral as much as physical beauty, something that ultimately creates a rather blank and even unsympathetic cipher of a character. Not that, Claggart, his shadowy nemesis, is accorded any particularly interiority either that would help rationalize the hatred he develops that will eventually destroy Billy…
But Melville's silence in regards to the character of Claggart is also one of the most evocative qualities of the novella, creating an opening that has often been interpreted as sexual in nature: that Claggart is motivated by an attraction that is almost inevitably one-sided, that his fateful claim against Billy is rooted in a self-hatred caused by this attraction, etc.
One way or the other, what interests me about Billy Budd is that Melville's elusively was appropriated by director Claire Denis for her lyrical and (very) loose adaptation Beau Travail (France, 1999). In Denis's capable hands the bare bones of Melville's story is transformed into a beautiful meditation on postcolonialism, homoeroticism, the human (specifically male) body, marginality, movement, race relations, etc, etc, etc that in its own way is just as elusive and endlessly evocative as Melville's text. Only rendered, if you excuse my (very) biased opinion, with a masterfulness and density that Melville's text barely hints at.