I started reading this novel, because it was Pamuk's shortest and although I liked the subject matter of his other novels, I was worried...moreA Short Start
I started reading this novel, because it was Pamuk's shortest and although I liked the subject matter of his other novels, I was worried I might bite off more than I could chew (I am the sort of person who must finish a book once I've started it, even if I hate it). So this was a taster for me.
From A to B Inevitably
I think it is fair to say that what happens at the end is inevitable. His craftsmanship lies in how he achieves it.
There is a moment towards the end of the book when the door opens and we're suddenly on the other side of the story.
Only we have to look back over our shoulder and think, how did I get here?
From A to B Predictably
It annoys me when people criticise a book, because they think it is predictable. Everything is predictable to someone, if not necessarily me, because I didn't see it coming. (I am not a big fan of prediction. I don't see the point.)
From A to B Enjoyably
But even if it is predictable, the skill is in the journey, the telling.
It's like a joke, or life or sex, we all know what the end is, it's what happens between now and then that matters.
Something similar might have happened to us all, it's the little differences that matter. (less)
I can see why some reviews detect white-washing or sugar-coating in "Just Kids", but I wanted desperately to believe the story...moreLooking For You (I Was)
I can see why some reviews detect white-washing or sugar-coating in "Just Kids", but I wanted desperately to believe the story Patti Smith was telling about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe.
Glitter in Their Eyes
Patti admits to her naivete, but I don't think she was trying to hide stuff from her kids or anything.
Nor do I think she closed off her emotions about her past.
Ultimately, the book is a love story, only the love extended over a long period, and sometimes it was requited, sometimes not.
Lots of things got in the way, sexuality for starters, drugs for main course, other partners for dessert.
But the book is about a love that they shared, and a youth that they both retained the whole of their lives, no matter what happened on the inside or the outside and no matter how poor or successful they were.
The name of the book asserts her belief that all that time they really were "just kids", those two kids that the tourists photographed soon after they first met.
About Another Boy
Although Patti reveals a lot about Robert, I think ultimately the book is her final expression of love for him.
I think it's important that she express her sugary side anyway, rather than "hide your love away".
The book might be relatively sugar-coated for our image of Patti Smith, but her sugar isn't as sickly sweet as most sleb love stories.
Memento Mori (Postscript)
One of the reasons I empathise with this book so much is my passion for Robert Mapplethorpe's photography (not to mention Patti's music, lyrics and poetry).
In March - April, 1986, I was on the Board of the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane, at the time we helped to bring an exhibition of Robert's photos to Australia.
It was a time of great political and moral conservatism in Queensland.
The Board included artists and academics who feared the loss of their jobs, if they were involved in the exhibition of photography that might later be found to be obscene under our criminal laws.
Many Board Meetings in the lead up to the exhibition debated whether we should not proceed with the exhibition or remove particular images (including "Man in Polyester Suit").
I made some tentative preparations to deal with a potential criminal action against the Board Members, including getting expert evidence on Robert's artistic status.
In the end, we decided to proceed with the exhibition in an uncensored form. All images were displayed in the form submitted by the artist and the curator.
The exhibition was highly popular and no complaints were made to the Police.
No criminal prosecution occurred.
The important lesson is that we could have self-censored and lost our own freedom.
Instead, we asserted and preserved our freedom in the face of fear.
For me, Robert and Patti represent, not just the existence of freedom in the abstract, but the assertion of freedom in reality.
I read this almost 12 months ago, which makes it difficult to recall and recount the tone of the writing. However, I would like to make so...moreUrban Recall
I read this almost 12 months ago, which makes it difficult to recall and recount the tone of the writing. However, I would like to make some general comments about the novel.
An Abstract High Concept Novel
In one sense, it is an abstract high concept novel. What does this mean? It's high concept in the sense that it takes a basic concept and explores it in detail. And it doesn't stray very far away from that concept. It's not "Snakes on a Plane". It's far more abstract than that.
The concept is basically: what if two cities and cultures or civilisations co-existed in the one physical city? I don't mean two distinct areas with a wall separating them like Berlin or Jerusalem. I don't mean two sides of the same street being administered by different councils or governments. One analogy for the City in the novel would be one city populated by some people and administered by one council during the day, then everybody moves out and it's a different people and council at night. If that makes sense so far, then this City has one difference. It isn't separated by day and night. The two Cities within the City co-exist in time, but in the same geographical space (hence, the City and the City). Everybody is everywhere at the same time, but they are separate. They walk down the same streets, they drive on the same roads, but they are legally separate. They aren't allowed to look at each other or acknowledge each other's existence. Each City must act and behave as if the other City isn't there. So this is the abstract high concept.
Mieville explores this fantasy concept within the crime thriller genre. Some readers question whether this is the right vehicle for the concept. They feel it makes the cardinal error of mixing genres. But I think it makes sense.
The two different Cities are basically legal constructs. They need the law to make the separation concrete. The law sits at the interface between the two Cities and enforces their separation. Any breach has to be detected and punished by the law. Therefore, when a breach occurs in the novel, we find out the true nature of the Cities, the law and the justice system.
As usual, there is too much law and not enough justice. As you would expect, these institutions end up being corrupt, not because they are institutions, but because they are institutions established and maintained by humans for human reasons. The novel is really the story of these institutions and their corruption.
The Detective and the Crime
Like crime fiction, it is told through the eyes of a detective investigating a small crime, which ultimately leads to the detection of a big crime. You could almost say it is the story of the Crime and the Crime (so I will).
Whether Mieville gets the tone right is a subjective issue. We don't know a lot about the back story of the characters, we don't get a lot of physical descriptions. We do get a well-constructed feel for the Kafkaesque atmosphere that defines this city. People walk its streets like automatons or ghosts, unwilling to look left or right, for fear that they will breach the separation of the two Cities. So if characters don't seem like they're human, if a reader feels that they are just cyphers, it's because the City has stripped their humanity away, it's the result of a stylistic choice (not the result of poor writing).
Abstract but Powerful
I admired Mieville's ability to construct these worlds and explore them credibly, while making the novel work at a metaphorical and political level. The novel could describe life in a totalitarian state, it could describe life in a separated city or nation, but it might also symbolise cultures where people co-exist, but don't acknowledge each other's existence or right to participate in institutions as equals. This could describe Christians and Jews, Christians and Muslims, whites and blacks, men and women, the rich and the poor. This differentiation exists everywhere, Mieville's genius is to explore it through a highly abstract, but powerful, metaphor. So comparisons with both Kafka and Chandler are apt.
Collins St, 5pm
COLOUR SPOILER ALERT
I don't want to spoil the visuals of the book for you, but below is a link to a wiki article about a 1955 painting that the book evokes for me. The painting explores a similar concept as a metaphor for alienation. One warning before you view it though: Partly because of the cover, I imagined The City as a blue/grey world, the world of this painting is brown. So if you want to leave scope to choose your own colours, you might not want to visit the link until you've read the book.
"V" isn't so much a difficult novel to read - it is after all just words, most of which are familiar - as one in which it...moreHow Hard Can It Possibly Be?
"V" isn't so much a difficult novel to read - it is after all just words, most of which are familiar - as one in which it is sometimes hard to understand what is going on and why.
What does it mean? Does it have to mean anything? How does it all connect?
Ironically, if not intentionally, the inability to determine what and why, as well as who, is part of its design. Pynchon mightn't want to answer all the questions he or life asks.
However, that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of food for thought in the novel.
Pynchon actually tells us a lot all of the time. Like "Ulysses", there are lots of hints and clues and allusions, and it's easy to miss them, if you're not paying attention to the flow of the novel and taking it all in. It's definitely a work that benefits from multiple readings.
Characters Both Sacred and Profane
"V" starts with one of two protagonists, the schlemiel Benny Profane, on Christmas Eve, 1955.
On the anniversary of the sacred day upon which a Virgin, Mary, gave birth to Christ (and thus started what would become Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant), Profane is wearing black levis, a suede jacket, sneakers and a big cowboy hat, a sort of bohemian uniform at the time.
He drops into the Sailors' Arms, which welcomes sailors from the tempestuous sea onto solid ground. For them, it's a dream come true, where the barmaids "all love to screw" and "remind you that every day is Christmas Eve".
This tavern is a haven and safe harbour. The big-breasted women here provide comfort and succour to men, something we can easily get used to and take for granted.
A Form Guide to Stencil
Sixty pages later, Pynchon introduces us to the second protagonist, Herbert Stencil, a man who refers to himself in the third person, which allows him to create a repertoire of bad faith or inauthentic identities (or Sartrean "impersonations").
He has no one solid persona, but somehow the ability to think of himself as and be not just the third person, but a first, a second, a fourth and a fifth permits him to function reasonably adequately (if not always normally) for a male, and so the multiple personalities "keep Stencil in his place".
When we meet him, however, his "place" is not static, it's dynamic. He is on a single-minded quest to find evidence of a woman named V. who he believes once knew his deceased father:
"As spread thighs are to the libertine, flights of migratory birds to the ornithologist, the working part of his tool bit to the production machinist, so was the letter V to young Stencil.
"He would dream perhaps once a week that it had all been a dream, and that now he’d awakened to discover the pursuit of V. was merely a scholarly quest after all, an adventure of the mind, in the tradition of The Golden Bough or The White Goddess."
With these V-shaped analogies and the allusion to these non-fiction works (is "V." itself just such a scholarly quest?), Pynchon gives us some insights into the myth and mystery and significance of "V".
The next paragraph gives us even more clues as to the nature of the pursuit or quest in general:
"But soon enough he’d wake up the second, real time, to make again the tiresome discovery that it hadn’t really ever stopped being the same simple-minded, literal pursuit; V. ambiguously a beast of venery, chased like the hart, hind or hare, chased like an obsolete, or bizarre, or forbidden form of sexual delight.
"And clownish Stencil capering along behind her, bells ajingle, waving a wooden, toy oxgoad. For no one’s amusement but his own."
In Pynchon's next novel, "The Crying of Lot 49", a woman, Oedipa Maas, would be the subject in and of the quest. She would be the one doing the detective work. Here, a male is the subject and a woman is the object of the quest or pursuit.
While both Oedipa and Stencil take their quests seriously, they meet with mixed success (perhaps a hallmark of a post-modern fiction). However, Pynchon seems to venerate Oedipa more highly. For all his earnestness, profundity and third person pretension, Stencil is a clown or a fool to match Profane's picaresque schlemiel.
"A Beast of Venery"
We all know the word "venereal", but how often do we see its root, "venery" (which means sexual indulgence or the pursuit of or hunt for sexual activity)?
The quest for man, if not necessarily for Stencil, is a quest for sexual pleasure, for sexual delight, for the sexual conquest of woman.
Stencil is looking for one woman. However, because she is of his father's generation and vintage, you have to ask whether in reality he is trying (potentially on behalf of all men) to understand the mystery of sexual attraction, the mystery of womanhood and the place of women in society and, if only from a male perspective, the role of woman in a man's life.
The Birth of Venus
From an etymological perspective, the word "venery" derives from the Latin "veneris", which in turn derives from the Roman god of love and sex, Venus, who in turn was modelled on the Greek god, Aphrodite.
The connotation of pursuit is thought to come from the resemblance of the word to the Latin "venari", which means to hunt.
Not coincidentally, the Botticelli painting "The Birth of Venus" features in the novel.
According to Robert Graves, Venus was also adapted from the pagan sea-goddess, Marian, who was often disguised as a merry-maid or mermaid. Suffice it to say, this Venus rose from the sea, hence the shell in the painting.
If we go back further in time, we meet another goddess Astarte, whom the Egyptians worshipped as a goddess of war and tenacity, while the Semites worshipped her as a goddess of love and fertility.
The Greeks would later adapt Astarte as the basis of Aphrodite (on the way to the Latin Venus). It is also linked to the goddesses and names Astoreth, Ishtar and Esther.
Esther is the name of a character in the novel, (partly Jewish, she gets a nose job in an attempt by her plastic surgeon who wishes to make her look more Irish), while a model of Astarte is the figurehead of the xebec or sailing ship upon which Stencil's father Sidney died in the Mediterranean off Malta in 1919. In a way, Sidney's death might be a return to the embrace of Venus (after all, she was a V) and the great unknown of the ocean?
Profane and Stencil inevitably meet each other over the course of the novel and collaborate in Stencil's quest as it moves from Manhattan to Malta.
They approach life and womanhood in contrasting ways.
Here's a summary of Profane:
Aimless, directionless, concerned with the present, existential, free-style, random, improvisatory, profane, superficial, more interested in the surface, physical, decadent, irrational.
Motivated, purposeful, concerned with the past, in pursuit of understanding and meaning, structured, organised, profound, more interested in depth, metaphysical, civilised, rational.
Despite their differences, they join together in Stencil's quest. What they share, obviously, is their manhood, the fact that they are men in a patriarchal society.
Whatever their differences as men, they are on the inside, whereas women, in contrast, are on the outside, subjugated, unable to exercise political power or social influence, whatever other means of persuasion they might have at their disposal.
"Not Who, But What"
Stencil's quest starts when he inherits a journal in which his father wrote the following cryptic note:
"There is more behind and inside V. than any of us had suspected. Not who, but what: what is she. God grant that I may never be called upon to write the answer, either here or in any official report."
There is a suggestion that Young Stencil is trying to find his own identity in V. He was raised motherless, having been born in 1901, which we are also told was the year "Victoria" died.
Stencil, speaking in the third person, says:
"You'll ask next if he believes her to be his mother. The question is ridiculous."
But does it mean the answer is ridiculous? Does it mean we shouldn't ask the question? Are Stencil and Pynchon simply steering us away from the obvious or the possible? Is Pynchon suggesting that fiction (at least post-modern fiction) need not be obliged to offer up answers, that not every quest leads to its Holy Grail?
I don't think I'm giving anything away when I say that there's not just one V, but potentially many. Or at least, Young Stencil finds clues as to the existence of many candidates.
Does it make any difference though? Does it matter who this particular woman, this V., is? Does the identity of any individual V. matter, when it is the "what", the abstraction of woman that Stencil might be seeking?
Is he, like us, simply trying to understand womanhood in all of its complexity?
Animation and Agitation
Whatever the answer, Stencil's quest animates and energises him. Beforehand, he had been inanimate:
"His random movements before the war had given way to a great single movement from inertness to - if not vitality, then at least activity. Work, the chase...it was V. he hunted...
"Finding her: what then? Only that what love there was to Stencil had become directed entirely inward, toward this acquired sense of animateness...to sustain it he had to hunt V.; but if he should find her, where else would there be to go but back into half-consciousness? He tried not to think, therefore, about any end to the search. Approach and avoid."
Sidney, on the other hand, was a spy and interrogator for the British Foreign Office whose function was to perpetuate the British Empire.
He regarded V. as a threat to order. He viewed her as an agent of chaos who, in her different manifestations, always arrived at a time when the world was in a state of siege. She had an unerring ability to appear when the patriarchal world of Western Imperialism was under threat, whether by civil war, rebellion or revolution.
In a way, V. represents an undivided, less phallocentrically structured world that unites the stability of land and the fluidity of the ocean, as well as Europe and Asia, West and East, Woman and Man.
At a more generalised level, V might represent the relationship between the Animate and the Inanimate, between Life and Death, between Eros and Thanatos.
The Woman Question
It's interesting that neither Stencil really wants to find a definitive answer to their particular woman question. They are males, and they can't see beyond an era during which men are firmly ensconced in the saddle of power and influence.
There is no preparedness to share power or to improve relationships between the sexes.
The nature of womanhood is therefore a question that remains unsolved at the end of the novel.
Women remain a mystery to men, perhaps because they (men) don't try hard enough or don't really want to understand. They are unable to change their own perspective, so that they might listen and learn. They are content to live with the allure of mystery.
In a way, what hope would there be for relationships if all of the mystery was obliterated?
As Profane says towards the end of the novel:
"Offhand I'd say I haven't learned a goddamn thing."
In a way, the unresolved concerns of the novel, from a male point of view, reflect Freud's plight:
"The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is 'What does a woman want?"
What is to be Done?
Both protagonists are selfish in their own masculine way. Profane seems to be oblivious to the issue of what women might want. Young Stencil is ambivalent. However, at least Pynchon is posing a question, which I hope he did not view as ridiculous.
Ultimately, while it's arguable that "V" is a pro-feminist novel, I think Pynchon's view was that, as at the time of writing in 1963, there was no solution to the relationship question in view. There was, quite simply, more to be done.
Perhaps the underlying truth is that, unless and until man understands the place of woman in the world, he will never understand his place next to woman.
Some perspective and hope might come from McClintic Sphere, the jazz musician in the novel.
His counsel, almost zen or beat, is to "keep cool, but care." Don't worry too hard about it, just do it. But try to do it with love, not just lust and desire.
Of course, the Women's Liberation Movement was only then starting to gather force. However, for all the good it has achieved since then, I think there still remains much to be done.
Maybe at the level of couples it can be done, if we keep cool, but care.
Esther Got a Nose Job
After years of childhood misery, Red-headed Esther got a nose job. One day the doctor removed her hump And returned it to her in a bottle. He thought it was such a great success, He gave her another hump for free.
Task force off Gibraltar Moving forward En route To Malta On tar-coloured Mediterranean Waters under Stars blooming Fat and sultry. The sort of night When there's no Torpedoes On the radar And Pig tells Us all a story About how he was Never caught Behind the green door The night Dolores Held an orgy.
Nothing if Not Profane
They met mid-function At the Rusty Spoon. Although she's nowhere Near his age or size, He dreamed that he might Find himself one night At the conjunction Of her inner thighs.
Voila, Vera Meroving! [After and Mostly in the Words of Pynchon]
Twin tendrils of sunlight Illuminated a crimson stain In the courtyard of the Baroque plantation villa. A window swung open On this fantastic day To reveal a striking woman In her forties, and otherwise, Barely clad, in a negligee, The hues of which were Peacock greens and blues, The fabric transparent, But not especially obscene. One Kurt Mondaugen, A crouching tiger, hid behind Wrought iron curlicues, Astonished by his desire To see and not be seen. If he waited long enough, A movement of the sun, This woman or the breeze, It might reveal to him, A voyeur, yes, it might reward His impatient gaze, his stare, With a glimpse of nipple, Her navel or some pubic hair.
For Want of Godolphin [After and Mostly in the Words of Pynchon]
Vera wanted Godolphin For reasons he Could only guess. Her desire arose Out of nostalgia For the sensuous, Her appetite Knew nothing at all Of nerves or heat, Or flesh or sweat, Or last night’s caress, But was instead beholden Entirely to barren, Touchless memory.
Schoenmaker Offers to Make Esther Beautiful [After and Mostly in the Words of Pynchon]
You are beautiful, Perhaps, not as you are, But as I see you. I, my love, yours truly, Want to give you Something that Is truly yours. I can bring out The beautiful girl Inside you, latent, The idea of Esther, As I have done already With your face and nose. Do you think me so shallow That I would only Love your body? Don’t you want me To love your soul, The true you? Well, what is the soul? It is the idea of the body, The abstraction behind The reality, the perfect Esther Behind the imperfect one Here in bone and tissue. Just an hour of time In my plastic surgery. I could bring your soul Outside, to the surface. I could make you Perfect, radiant, Unutterably Beautiful and Platonically ideal. Then I could love you Unconditionally, Truly, madly, deeply, dearly.(less)