When I first read As I Lay Dying about twenty years ago, I grossly underestimated it. At first, it struck me as a bunch of hillbillies dragging a body...moreWhen I first read As I Lay Dying about twenty years ago, I grossly underestimated it. At first, it struck me as a bunch of hillbillies dragging a body across flooded rivers for upwards of two weeks to bury it in a distant town. Now, I see it as no less an epic than The Iliad, or more appropriately, The Odyssey. And I see Faulkner more and more as the single greatest writer of novels and stories in over a hundred years.
The tale of As I Lay Dying is told by the participants, with the lion's share going to the madman Darl and his confused young brother Vardaman. The characters include Anse Bundren, the paterfamilias; his soon to be dead wife Addie; their children Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman; their neighbors Vernon and Cora Tull; and, more briefly, other characters they run into during their long treck to bury Addie. At one point, days after her death, we get a strange and singularly beautiful reminiscence from Addie herself. Here, she talks of her failing relationship with Anse:
And then he died. He did not know he was dead. I would lie by him in the dark, hearing the dark land talking of God's love and His beauty and His sin; hearing the dark voicelessness in which the words are deeds, and the other words that are not deeds, that are just the gaps in people's lacks, coming down like the cries of the geese out of the wild darkness in the old terrible nights, fumbling at the deeds like orphans to whom are pointed out in the crowd two faces and told, That is your father, your mother.
Reading Faulkner is never quite a stroll in the park. Suffice it to say that there is a reward for taking pains to comprehend him: Whatever difficulties may exist, there is always at the story's core something as profound as Shakespeare's Lear or Sophocles's Oedipus or Dante's Divine Comedy. If you have blood in your veins, you will be changed.(less)
This is the third time I have read this late masterpiece of Balzac's -- and it got better with each reading. There have been other novels (mostly Euro...moreThis is the third time I have read this late masterpiece of Balzac's -- and it got better with each reading. There have been other novels (mostly European) about men who have ruined themselves for illicit love of other women, but Balzac's Baron Hector Hulot goes further than any of them. At the beginning of Cousin Bette, he is at his apogee: married to a loving woman, with two loving adult children -- and an incredible itch for what willing young women have to offer. I will not say what happens to him in the end, but his fall is precipitous and involves the ruin of his brother, his uncle (who commits suicide), and numerous others who are tangentially affected by his ways.
Rather than summarize the story, which the author handles masterfully, I thought I would discuss what makes for a great Balzac novel:
1. The best Balzac stories show temptations or character weaknesses to which the hero or heroine yields, and for which he or she suffers grievously. This ranges from the lecherousness of Hulot to the improvidence of César Birotteau the perfumer to the excessive indulgence of Old Goriot to his daughters to the blind ambition of Balthazar Claes in The Quest for the Absolute to find the alchemist's stone. Perhaps the classical plot in this respect is The Wild Ass's Skin.
2. Behind the best Balzac plots are demoniacal moneylenders who are never, ever bested in their transactions with mere mortals. In Cousin Bette, there is Vauvinet, but the best moneylender in his work is the eponymous hero of Gobseck.
3. Balzac's Paris is full of young dandies on the make who act as a kind of Greek chorus to the story. Perhaps the best depiction of them is in Lost Illusions.
4. Envy plays an outsize role in the world of Balzac. Whenever someone looks to be doing well, often one finds a sort of cabal forming to do him or her in. And this cabal is every bit as relentless as the moneylenders, with whom they are frequently in cahoots. Again, Lost Illusions is a prime example. This is related to the extreme vengeance that plays such a large part in Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons.
5. Not only evil, but good, sometimes acts under the cover of a seemingly all-powerful secret society. The classical case are the three stories collected under the title The Thirteen. For good, there is Mme de la Chanterie, who appears in the current novel and also, at greater length, in The Wrong Side of Paris. In Cousin Bette, we see the archvillain Vautrin, now become chief of police, working with dubious villains like Mme Nourrisson, to help Victorine Hulot wreak revenge on Mme de Marneffe.
6. There is something Mephistophelian in Balzac's best villains, especially Vautrin in the three or four novels in which he figures as a major character. I would have to include Mme de Marneffe, whose avarice is matched only by the unbridled lust of her lovers.
7. Although Balzac keeps returning to the balm of the Catholic Church, he likes to let his victims twist in the wind before they get any of the Church's benefits.
8. There are frequently large sums of money involved in highly complex financial transactions that defy anyone whose knowledge of French economics of the July monarchy is less than professorial. In this edition, in fact, there is an appendix entitled "Money Plot of Cousin Bette." Having read it, I'm still in the dark.
9. Balzac virtually invented the idea of the same characters appearing in two or more or even a dozen stories. Doctor Bianchon is, I believe, in over thirty of them. The more Balzac you read -- including the minor works and the shorter stories -- the more you will appreciate novels like this one, in which dozens of characters reappear elsewhere.
In short, looking back at the many Balzac novels I have read -- and I have read most of them -- I find myself looking at what its author called "The Human Comedy" -- men and women who fall far short of the ideal and are grievously punished for it.
The five novels I will list here are among the greatest works from the mind of man and well-deserving of close study by anyone who is interested in how human beings fall short of their hopes and aspirations: (a) Père Goriot; (b) Lost Illusions; (c) A Harlot High and Low; (d) Cousin Bette; and (e) Cousin Pons. I could easily have expanded the number to ten, or fifteen, or even more. (less)
Little did I know when I started this book on Sunday that it would loom so large in my mind. (I had started several times before, but I wasn't ready f...moreLittle did I know when I started this book on Sunday that it would loom so large in my mind. (I had started several times before, but I wasn't ready for it until now.)
The narrative is divided into two roughly equal parts, of which the first is incomparably better. It follows the peregrinations of one Molloy as he lives the life of a lowly, semi-demented (but not entirely) derelict in some Irish market town, possibly called Bally. The first paragraph is roughly normal in size; the second one runs for approximately a hundred pages. As for Molloy himself, he is a gentle creature (except when he murders a charcoal-burner in the countryside) who is the man described by King Lear:
Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art. (King Lear, Act III, Scene 4)
The first person narrator is in considerable pain as he moves aimlessly through the countryside:
My progress suffered, from this state of affairs, and from the slow and painful progress it had always been, whatever may have been said to the contrary, was changed, saving your presence, to a veritable calvary, with no limit to its stations and no hope of crucifixion, though I say it myself, and no Simon, reduced me to frequent halts.
The second part of Molloy introduces a new character in a different milieu, a bourgeois investigator who lives in a home with his son and housekeeper, a few hens, and a beehive. He communicates with a remote figure whom we never see called Youdi (Yahweh?) through a messenger named Gaber (Gabriel?). He is to travel with his son (Abraham and Isaac?) to the town of Bally and find Molloy.
Moran sets out in the middle of the night, walking with his son, whom, like everyone he meets, he mistreats. In the months it takes to walk to Bally (why walk?), his son runs away from him; and he begins to resemble Molloy in the increasing decrepitude of his legs and the growing raggediness of his clothing. Eventually, he meets up with Gaber just outside of Bally where he is told (from Youdi) to return home. Instanter.
I have not read any Samuel Beckett since reading three or four of his plays years ago, but I think I shall finish reading the trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. And then there are the other novels. I think, as the Claude Raines's Vichy inspector says at the end of Casablanca, I think this looks like the start of a beautiful friendship.(less)
Is this going to be another interim review? I have just finished reading the 500-odd fragments that make up Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet, an...moreIs this going to be another interim review? I have just finished reading the 500-odd fragments that make up Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet, and the most apt comment I can make at this time is, "Did anyone get the license number of that truck that hit me?" I like to think of myself as someone who can deliver what appear to be authoritative and incisive comments at the drop of a hat. Well, the hat has dropped, and I find myself standing around blubbering with a vacant look on my face.
Think of someone who is a stranger to love, to ambition, to friendship, to life as seen as anything but a cortege of dreams. No one, but no one, could wring so much out of a series of fragments -- unless it is Blaise Pascal, whose equally fragmentary Pensées this book reminds me of. But where Pascal tried in his own Jansenist way to reconcile the ways of God to man, Pessoa has a very different God in mind in Fragment 473:
Every sound mind believes in God. No sound mind believes in a definite God. There is some being, both real and impossible, who reigns over all things and whose person (if he has one) cannot be defined, and whose purposes (if he has any) cannot be fathomed. By calling this being God, we say everything, since the word God -- having no precise meaning -- affirms him without saying anything. The attributes of infinite, eternal, omnipotent, all-just or all-loving that we sometimes attach to him fall off by themselves, like all unnecessary adjectives when the noun suffices. And he who, being indefinite, cannot have attributes, is for that very reason the absolute noun.
The persona of the author of The Book of Disquiet is a total nebbish -- by design. What complicates matters is that Pessoa is known to have produced works under different fictional personae which he refers to as heteronyms. The heteronym for this book was to have been Bernardo Soares, a bookkeeper, though some fragments were from the point of view of a Vicente Guedes, who appears in three fragments sequestered in an appendix. My question is simply this: To what extent was Bernardo Soares the same as Fernando Pessoa?
The Book of Disquiet was never published in its author's lifetime. For many years, it existed only as a collection of pieces of scrap paper in a trunk. There are no characters except the first person narrator, who describes his humdrum life in the city of Lisbon -- a city wracked by terrible thunderstorms and bright sunlight. This narrator, reliable or not, is a conscientious objector from most of the business of what we would consider to be life. "I see life as a roadside inn where I have to stay until the coach from the abyss pulls up. I don't know where it will take me, because I don't know anything." At greater length, in Fragment 208:
This is my morality, or metaphysics, or me: passer-by of everything, even of my own soul, I desire nothing, I am nothing -- just an abstract centre of impersonal sensations, a fallen sentient mirror reflecting the world's diversity. I don't know if I am happy this way. Nor do I care.
This Napoleon of Nullity verges from being merely annoying at times to having attained by some Buddhist burst of contemplation the ultimate nothing, the annihilation of all wants, all desires. When he is annoying, it is because his text was never edited by its author into a coherent whole, if for no other reason than he didn't believe in such things -- or so he said.
If you ever contemplate reading this book, which I consider now to be one of the greatest ever written, I suggest that you dip into it passim. Live with it in dribs and drabs for a few months. In the end, I roared through the last couple hundred pages in a few days, which I do not recommend. As a result, I slighted the section at the end called "A Disquiet Anthology" because it represented too much of a change of pace from the shorter fragments, and I was more geared to them at the time. No matter, I will revisit this book -- if i had but world enough and time.
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Interim review: It is difficult to plow through a book that is essentially a collection of formless excerpts. At the same time, I think Book of Disquiet is well worth dipping into, which is what I shall be doing until I finally finish it.(less)
How can a work created 2,700 years ago still be so exciting, so vital, and so involving? I should also add modern, as the epic's narrative structure a...moreHow can a work created 2,700 years ago still be so exciting, so vital, and so involving? I should also add modern, as the epic's narrative structure almost classifies it as postmodern. Years ago, I had read the Fitzgerald translation, which I liked. This time, it was the Robert Fagles version. Although he occasionally strikes a false note, as when Penelope refuses to name "Troy," calling it "Destroy" instead, Fagles has by and large succeeded in wedding an ancient Greek epic to modern, almost colloquial English. For example, there are these lines spoken by Odysseus (in disguise) to Amphinomus, one of the suitors for Penelope's hand:
Of all that breathes and crawls across the earth, our mother earth breeds nothing feebler than a man. So long as gods grant him power, spring in his knees, he thinks he will never suffer affliction down the years. But then, when the happy gods bring on the long and hard times, bear them he must, against his will, and steel his heart. Our lives, our mood and mind as we pass across the earth, turn as the days turn ... as the father of men and gods make each day dawn. I too seemed destined to be a man of fortune once, and a wild wicked swath I cut, indulged my lust for violence, staking all on my father and my brothers. Look at me now. And so, I say, let no man ever be lawless all his life, just take in peace what gifts the gods will send.
At one point in Book XIX of The Odyssey, Odysseus tells us that his name means "The Son of Pain." And from his departure from Troy to the loss of all his men during the course of his voyages, Odysseus shows us a man who is, while cursed by the gods, still noble and able to bear up with adversity without ever bemoaning his fate. Homer's hero is a man for all time.
This is the fourth time I have read this great novel, though the first time in the excellent Lydia Davis translation. There are three sections in Swan...moreThis is the fourth time I have read this great novel, though the first time in the excellent Lydia Davis translation. There are three sections in Swann's Way: The first and third are of the series narrator, Marcel (whose last name is never given), first as a young boy in Combray, where he schemes to get a good-night kiss from his beloved mother, and finally as a slightly older boy in Paris, who falls in love with his playmate Gilberte Swann.
The middle is the heart and soul of Swann's Way: It is the story of a wealthy dilettante named Charles Swann who falls in love with the cocotte Odette de Crécy. At first, his love is receiprocated; but Odette is accustomed to the love of many men, and she cuckolds Charles with the Comte de Forcheville and possibly several other men. Devoured by envy, Swann finally admits:
To think that I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I felt my deepest love, for a woman who did not appeal to me, who was not my type!
Of course, that did not stop him from marrying her. In the third part of Swann's Way, we see young Marcel fall in love with the daughter of Swann and Odette. As yet, it is still puppy love, but Marcel is a very serious young man. We end the book feeling that the relationship between Swann and his wife could be repeated in the next generation.
Marcel Proust is perhaps the greatest novelist of the twentieth century. I feel as if I could read this book four more times, if enough of life were left to me.