"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)
Murakami sings to me of fascination. I still haven't worked out why.
I could analyse the sensatio...moreOriginal Review: February 22, 2011
Songs of Fascination
Murakami sings to me of fascination. I still haven't worked out why.
I could analyse the sensation until it died on the operating table.
Or I could focus on just keeping the sensation alive.
Or, somewhere in between, I could speculate that it's because Murakami sits over the top of modern culture like a thin gossamer web, intersecting with and touching everything ever so lightly, subtly expropriating what he needs, bringing it back to his writer's desk or table, and spinning it into beautiful, haunting tales that fail to stir some, but obsess others like literary heroin.
Sins of Fascination
Pending a more formal review, below is a song that I pieced together by way of dedication to the book and Paul Bryant's parody.
The song careers all over the surface of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and "Paperback Writer", so I probably owe them and you an apology, but it seemed like an apt way to celebrate Murakami at the time.
As these things often do, it emerged in a thread on a review of this novel.
In the cold hard light of retrospect, I don't know what I was thinking. Nor can I remember what I was drinking when I thought it up.
However, if any one ever creates or releases a soundtrack to Murakami's novels, I'll play it every day of my life.
Or as Paul jokingly suggested, there might even be a musical in there somewhere. (For someone else, maybe even Murakami, to create.)
"Sister Feelings Call" (or "Wind-Up Bird and Black Cat") (A Sonic Chronicle)
"I once had a bird or should I say she once had me. She had a passing resemblance to Halle Berry.
She showed me her room, and said "Isn't it good, this neighbourhood?" She asked me to stay and said she'd written a book. It took her years to write, would I take a look.
I read a few pages of parody and started to laugh. It was then that she told me she was only one half. She had a twin sister called Sally she'd like me to meet. She lived in an alley at the end of the street.
She told me she worked in the morning and went off to bed. I left her room, a brand new idea in my head. When I got there, that alley was dead at both ends, Just me, a black cat and a few of its friends."
Paul Bryant's Review
Paul Bryant has written an excellent parody of Murakami in his review of "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle".
It absolutely nailed Haruki Murakami's writing style in this book:
Horizontal eight. Get the feeling you've been had? What infinite jest!
[Sponsored by the Sex Pistols last gig, Winterland, January 14th, 1978]
The Sound of Young Boston
I can't see you, and It's getting dark in my room. God's not in the house.
[Apologies to Jonathan Richman and Paul Bryant]
The Secret's in the Service
Onward jesting servers, Raise your ball and racquet more, Don’t lob it to the fore.
Where Be Your Aces Now?
A lass for Yorick! His backhand is as fancy As his win/loss ratio.
What became of the Prettiest Girl of All Time? Flawless 'neath her veil.
The Ghost of Jean-Paul Sartre Visits Boston AA
You know he is dead... God as you understand him. Can I bum a smoke?
Year of the Next Evolution in Vibrant Senior Living
I imagine us Sharing some infinite jest, Dignified and old.
[Apologies to Jonathan Richman and North Hill]
----1---- --------- ((((0))))
Language, mind, time, Space and fate: The final frontier. These are the voyages of the cartridge "Entertainment". Its five-year mission: To explore strange new worlds, To seek out new life in old civilizations, To boldly show what No man has been shown before.
WHAT A RACQUET, WHAT A F**KEN' RACQUET! ("Talking like a Moron, Walking like a Spiv"): [Apologies to John Wade and The Libertines]
Oh, come all Good Readers tasteful, Even if his words are wasteful, It's not a crime to ignore him Nor a folly to adore him. Just because the author's famous Doesn't mean we need disclaimers. There's no need to involve the law Nor your opinion to withdraw. Just as long as you buy the book From the website of Amazon.
"A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now."
In the beginning was the earth, and above the earth was the sky.
The earth consisted of land and water. The sky consisted of air, the moon, the sun and the stars in the heavens.
The land consisted of rock. Water was everywhere, but still precious.
The sky was light by day and dark by night. By day, the light came from the sun and sometimes the moon. At night, a lesser light came from the stars and the moon.
On the land, things were still, but then they began to change.
The sun made rock hot by day and the night made it cold, and the rock became stone, and the stone soon became soil.
The Creation of Life
In time, the soil and the water came together with the air and the sunlight to form life.
The life was green and did cling to the soil.
The air and the heavens were the realm of gravity.
Everything on earth was made to fall and to disperse and to dissipate as time goes by.
To rise was to challenge the laws of nature. Nothing could rise, except one thing, invisibly, vapors.
Water mixed with the heat of the sun and became a vapor, and the vapor ascended to the sky and became clouds. At night and sometimes by day, the clouds became rain, and the rain fell and spilled water onto the earth.
Some water remained on the land in rivers and streams and lakes. Other water, sliding and falling and dropping across the land, found its way to the oceans.
The Life of Fruit
In time, life conspired to defy gravity little by little.
Life combined with the soil and the water and the air and the light to make trees and shrubs (some bearing bananas or mangoes or pawpaws), and these plants reached skyward to the sun.
But these plants could not be severed from the soil, because their roots sought nourishment there. Any plant severed from the soil would fall to the earth, obedient to gravity.
In time, many plants were severed from the earth and covered by soil and water and became hard and part of the rock. Beneath the surface of the earth, dead plants formed coal, and sometimes oil and gas.
The Origin of Man
After much time, other forms of life were born, including animals that did grow heads and arms and legs and tails and eat the plants.
Some animals became humans, some male, some female, all of whom wished to walk on two legs and become higher than other animals and plants.
Men were not always bigger and stronger than other animals and so sought refuge in holes in the ground and caves.
The caves were darker than night and men grew frightened of the dark, not knowing what was out there, until they discovered fire, which they used for light and heat.
Sometimes, men used fire to warm the flesh of other beasts and they grew stronger.
Life was good, and men tended to live within and surrounded by nature as one.
Man on the Move
Men began to move across the earth in search of food and learned how to construct homes of rock and stone and bricks made of soil and water.
Their homes grew taller than trees and animals and began to defy gravity.
Then men learned how to make machines that could move across the land and water at speeds faster than men or horses could walk or run.
And they consumed coal and oil and gas, so that they were not dependent on horse power.
Man Turns the Power Switch On
Men learned how to make electricity and switches that would turn the power on and off.
Men made glass bulbs that turned darkness into light.
Men had finally become enlightened.
Men looked at the sky for beauty and meaning and portents of the future.
They wondered what lived in the heavens and whether they had been created by gods.
They made drawings and pictures of what surrounded them. One day they would make photographs and moving pictures and shiny silver discs.
Men observed what occurred in nature and, over a great duration, started to learn about cause and effect.
Man Dominates Himself
Then men created gods in their own image.
They invented religions and superstitions and sometimes it was difficult to tell them apart, men and their gods, religions and superstitions.
Men used their religions to explain what they could and couldn’t do.
Then they created churches and holy men and scriptures to dictate to them what they must and must not do, and the holy men and their gods punished them if they did not do what they must do, or did what they must not do.
Man Discovers Matters of Life and Death
Men observed decay and destruction and death around them, and wondered whether they too would die one day.
Men didn’t like this prospect and decided that they alone amongst the plants and animals had a soul and, after death, would live in eternity.
Except that, if they disobeyed the commandments of their holy men and gods and scriptures, they would be punished by eternal damnation and made to live in hell. Which was not meant to be a good thing.
Some scientists conducted experiments and tests on dogs and other animals and learned how they were governed by stimulus and response.
Men wondered whether their souls and their capacity for reason elevated them above the animals.
They did not recognise that, even with their gods, men would do evil things to each other that animals would never do.
Man Engages in Some Empire State Building
Men built their homes in cities and formed nations. They conquered other cities and nations and established empires.
They established workforces and armies.
They organised men and their possessions into rows and columns, and they made men and women wear uniforms, so that they might look and think and do alike.
They developed systems to punish those who would dissent and they used force to hold their empires together.
They looked down upon any man or woman who would not conform or wear a uniform.
Those that they did not incarcerate or hang or inject with life-sapping solutions or electricity, they cast off into the wilderness, where they would disperse or die of thirst.
We Men are Scientists
So men acquired knowledge and wisdom, and accumulated science and technology beyond the wildest dreams of their predecessors.
They converted their knowledge and wisdom into zeroes and ones, so that they might store them on silver discs.
Some men wondered whether there was more to life than zeroes and ones, and was there anything beyond zero or between zero and one, and they were scorned.
Man Defies Gravity
Slowly, man’s dreams became more ambitious.
Some men dreamed about how they might fly like a bird, and one day men learned how to make flying machines.
Men did not always live happily with other men, and they made tools and machines that would maim and kill their enemies.
Men used their aeroplanes to drop bombs on other men, and the planes and the bombs grew bigger, and the maiming and the killing grew more widespread and efficient.
At the same time, men learned how to make bigger and taller buildings that reached higher and appeared to touch the sky.
Many men lived and worked in these skyscrapers.
In Case of War
Then there were two wars between many nations of the world.
In the first war, many men died in trenches dug into the soil of their farms.
In the second war, it was not necessary to get into a trench to die. Many people died in their homes and their buildings. It was easier to kill more quickly in the cities that housed large numbers of people.
Men made new bombs that were meant to end the wars, but when they continued, men invented rockets that could maim and kill even greater numbers of people.
Some rockets made a sound that warned people that they were coming.
If you heard the sound, you might be able to escape to safety.
When they did not end the war, scientists invented more and better ways to kill more and better people. They built rockets that made no noise and could kill you before you heard them coming.
They were the perfect machinery of death, because nowhere was safe and you could not escape them.
These rockets defied both gravity and the imagination.
While nobody had been looking or thinking about it, man’s buildings and vehicles and aeroplanes and rockets and bombs had made the earth dark again.
A Voice in the Wilderness
Well, maybe not nobody. A man called Slothrop had been watching.
Every time a rocket was launched, Slothrop was blessed with a hard-on, an erection.
He would look at the rockets and he would be turned off.
At the same time, he would look at the rockets and he would be turned on.
Slothrop’s hard on was a hard one for the scientists to explain.
What the Fuck?
Somewhere in Europe, scientists were erecting buildings, platforms, rockets that could bring death to people like Slothrop.
Slothrop suspected that the best use of an erection was not to build an edifice, but to fill an orifice.
Slothrop wondered, why had men become obsessed by Death, when they should have been preoccupied with Life?
Surely, there is no life without sex, no progress without congress, no creation without procreation?
“Make love, fuck the war.”
“Fuck war, fuck each other.”
How do you convince everybody else that this is the solution?
“Fucked if I know,” sez Slothrop.
The Prophet Debunked
Slothrop is cast out of the mainstream and sets out across Europe in pursuit of love, sex, and rockets (and those who would launch any one or more of them at him).
Still, even equipped with his hard on, Slothrop prefers bananas to buildings and rockets, he is bent but never straight.
He is the ultimate non-conformist, hedonist and sybarite, who gives pleasure to himself and to many women, Katje, Margherita, Bianca, three of the foremost amongst them.
Slothrop’s skepticism and excess threaten the System, Religion and Culture. He is an anarchist Counter-Force to Binary Code, Mono-theism, Uniformity and Over-the-Counter Culture.
He is the unwitting counter-cultural Prophet who threatens the methodical, ordered and conformist backbone of Mainstream Society.
He is a spanner in the works. He is a virus that must be eliminated. Like Trotsky, he is a Prophet that must be netted.
They, the powers that be, with their uniforms and their weapons and their switches, chase Slothrop through Europe, but he remains free.
In time, people came to doubt whether Slothrop ever actually existed at all.
Some would ask, “Slothrop? What kind of name for a prophet is that?”
Still They did not stop their pursuit, even when They were certain that he must be dead. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
If you can’t see him or hear him, deprive him of oxygen. Wipe out his disciples. Stifle his message. Prevent it from reaching any children. If the medium is the message, remove his medium. That way the prophet and his prophecy will cease to exist.
Revelations? What Revelations?
Was Slothrop a fabrication? A ghost in the machine? A shadow in the light of day? A figment of someone’s imagination? A fiction? Just a character in a novel? Just a story in a holy book?
As Slothrop would say, “I’m fucked if I know.”
Outside the novel, the world continues as before, only more so. Buildings reach higher. Rockets and aeroplanes fly further. Wars drone on. Civilians die. Men line up in rows and columns and uniforms. Power perpetuates itself eternally. Evil perpetrates itself on people via people. Darkness masquerades as light.
The sky is silent. We can no longer hear the screaming. It’s all theatre, even within our homes.
I re-read this as part of a group read started by Stephen M:
A Letter from Vlad the Impaler of Butterflies Dated April, 1973
Vera and I very much appreciated your gift of a signed first edition of your novel.
It actually caused a little friction in the Nabokov household.
I don't mean to be ungrateful or vulgar, but we both wished you had given us one copy each. (I guess we could purchase one, but we were too keen to read it.)
Naturally, I started it first, immediately it arrived, but quickly found I couldn't put it down.
The reason being that, every time I did, Vera picked it up and commenced reading.
Initially, our respective lepidopteran bookmarks were quite far apart, but when she passed my place, she asserted her right to be the dominant reader, and I had to wait until she had devoured the entire offering, which she did by the time of Maundy Thursday.
Fortunately, this left me Easter to finish it, so we were able to compare notes by Easter Monday, appropriately with a sense of renewed faith in literature.
I am convinced "Gravity's Rainbow" is one of the finest works of modern fiction.
It is very much an artistic and logical extension of "V.", which as you know we also enjoyed greatly.
If your first novel was a pursuit of "V", then "Gravity's Rainbow" is a pursuit of V, too.
In fact, it is a pursuit of both V1 and V2.
Vera was bold enough to suggest that V1 and V2 might connote Vlad and Vera, though we were unable to reach consensus on who might be noisy and who might be silent.
We did, however, hypothesise that Slothrop could be a reversal of Humbert.
To put it bluntly (these are Vera's words, not mine), Humbert, European in origin, fucks his way around the New World, more or less.
Slothrop, on the other hand, American to his bootstraps, fucks his way around the Old World.
I admire the way you, even more so than Slothrop, carried off Bianca.
It is some of the most delicious erotic writing I have read.
Bianca echoes Dolores nicely.
Even the sound of her name...Bi-an-ca.
The way it rolls off your tongue, it reminds me of, forgive me for citing myself, "Lo-lee-ta".
It's also close enough to the German acronym B.N.K. (which even a faint-hearted German reader or patient would appreciate stands for the "Bundesverband Niedergelassener Kardiologen", cross my heart and hope not to die).
Vera was the first to detect how you reversed the reader's response to this relationship.
Humbert knew damned well how old Lolita was. It was crucial to his enterprise.
On the other hand, Slothrop "believed" Bianca was a minor of barely 11 or 12, but when you work through the arithmetic of your puzzle, you realise that in reality (and therefore fiction) she was 16 (or was it 17?) and consequently of age.
So, what Slothrop did was legitimate, but what the reader (who was as yet unaware of this detail) did was not.
In "Lolita", I allowed readers to believe they were jurors with a legitimate interest in the proceedings, whereas in "Gravity's Rainbow" they are complicit in a crime that the protagonist did not actually commit.
The reader's voyeurism comes at a cost, at least metaphorically.
Only time will tell whether America and the world is ready to be confronted with their culpability.
Even if they are not, I hope your novel receives the acclaim it deserves.
So, well done, Tom, Richard would have been proud.
I would have been proud to call you my pupil, too (Pupil 2?), if only you had enrolled in one of my classes.
Perhaps you learned more and better from my example?
In the hope that you might continue to do so, I have asked my Publisher to send you a copy of my "Strong Opinions".
I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed expressing them.
Yours, with all my admiration,
Slothropod De-Feets Cephalopod, Dutch Girl Almost Pops Her Clogs
Slothrop, octopus And Katje Borgesius We were meant to meet.
The Thoughts of An Erotic Clausewitz
Fuck Death, Fuck Rockets, Says Erotic Clausewitz, Make Love, Fuck the War.
Jim Carroll Watches the Earth Recede
How can I propel My missile 'gainst the pull of Wicked Gravity?
Slothrop's Dewy Glans
Slothrop's cock, un-cropped Slots into sweet spot, then, spent, Flops soft in wet spot.
Who knows what worldly wisdom I might find When I discover myself at the peak, Gravity-defiant, all nickels spent, Trying to work out what it could have meant, And you're already there, reposed, asleep, Your trousers down and crimson phallus bent, And scattered on the snow are streaks Of your rocket-powered ejaculate That have fallen moist, arc-like to the earth, Still rainbow-coloured and immaculate.
So I read 200 sullen words worth Of the dry wit and onanistic mirth That appeal so much to the daisy chain Of acolytes standing at your rear. As one who's usually come before, They call you a poet and a seer. It's sad we only see your back side, Though we're the ones forever left behind By all your avant garde sorcery and The flaccid disquisitions of your mind.
While I first read this novel in 2009, I bought a second-hand copy in May, 2013 for $7, which I thought was a bargain price f...morePLAYFUL:
An Opening Gambol
While I first read this novel in 2009, I bought a second-hand copy in May, 2013 for $7, which I thought was a bargain price for the degree of pleasure it's given me.
Only when I was half way through did I notice a sheet of white paper slipped into the last pages.
It shows four hand-drawn circles, each of which contains the name of a city and a number.
If the numbers represent years, they cover 21 years. If you add 2 and 1, you get the number 3. If you examine the gaps between the years, you get the numbers 11, 4 and 6. If you add these numbers, you get 21, which when added together, comes to 3. If you add 1, 1, 4 and 6, you get 12, which when added, comes to 3.
If the numbers are not years and you add them together, you get 8,015. If you add these numbers, you get 14, and if you add 1 and 4, you get 5. If you add 3 and 5, you get 8, which is exactly twice the number of circles on the sheet.
Here is a photo of the sheet:
I've been back to the bookshop where I bought my copy, but the owner wasn't able to remember who she had bought the book from.
I'm not sure how many of these cities get mentioned in the novel [all but Madrid, as it turns out, unless I'm mistaken]. However, I've since discovered the following facts with the assistance of Professor Googlewiki.
Manchester is the home of the Manchester Unity of Odd Fellows in England, from which some Rosicrucian Orders derive their charter.
Madrid is the home of Gran Logia AMORC, Jurisdicción de Lengua Española para Europa, Africa y Australasia.
The Rosicrucian Order, Christian Order of the Hermetic Gold & Rose+Cross is based in Los Angeles.
In Paris, the Temple was a medieval fortress, located in what is now the 3rd arrondissement. The Knights Templar originally constructed it as their European headquarters.
If you have any ideas about the significance of this sheet of paper, please message me or post them in the comments below, with a spoiler warning. Alternatively, please send them with a stamped, addressed envelope containing US$20 processing fee [plus any gratuity you are happy with] to my home address.
If you're the first to work out some sort of solution that convinces me of its authenticity, I'll post a photo of something that might absolutely amaze you.
P.S. Brian's hypothesis has convinced me.
How Foucault's Pendulum Works (Maybe)
1. Imagine the Earth is a perfectly spherical hollow ball (it is, you know, or is it?).
2. Imagine that a steel cable 6,371 kilometers long is attached to the bottom side of the North Pole. This is more or less the radius of the Earth.
3. Imagine that a really bloody heavy lead bob is attached to the end of the cable.
4. Let's imagine that the Earth isn't tilted off its axis.
5. Let's say we're sitting underground on a couch somewhere north of the Equator, and we drag the cable and bob over to the inside of the sphere, then we let it go, so that it starts swinging through the centre of the Earth and over to the other side.
6. Let's assume that the bob swings in the one plane, a constant relative to the space outside the sphere of the Earth, e.g., as measured relative to the stars.
6. Let's try to do this very carefully, just in case it swings back to exactly where we're sitting on the couch.
7. But it doesn't! (See steps 10 and 11.)
8. Let's assume that the bob swings so quickly that it takes an hour to swing back to the side it started (i.e., a complete cycle).
9. Let's assume that the Earth is rotating once every 24 hours (it is, you know, or is it?).
10. Every hour, the earth moves 15 degrees around its own 360 cycle (360 degrees/24 hours = 15 degrees).
11. By the time the bob returns to our side of the Earth, it touches the inside of the sphere 15 degrees away from our couch.
12. Repeat another 23 times, and the bob comes full circle and smashes our couch.
13. Fortunately it doesn't smash us as well, because by now we understand how Foucault's Pendulum works, and we got off the couch just in time.
14. If we map the path of the bob, it will look something like this (except that there would be 24 repetitions instead of eight):
15. If we mapped 24 repetitions, the map would look more like a rose. Hence, in mathematics, this type of map is referred to as a "rose" or "rhodonea curve", and each half of a repetition (from the circumference to the centre) is called a "petal".
16. Hence, in "Foucault's Pendulum", Umberto Eco takes us from "The Name of the Rose" to "The Shape of the Rose".
17. It is possible that everything I've said to you so far is false.
The Quest for Happiness
"Foucault’s Pendulum" is at once a Post-Modernist and an Existentialist novel.
Umberto Eco’s focus is not just Religion. It’s any form of ideology: Fascism, the Resistance, God, Socialism.
For Eco, these ideologies or belief systems are “Fixed Points” that determine our relationship with the cosmos.
While individual lives might be relatively chaotic, in constant motion, the belief systems are supposed to fix and secure our relationship with the universe. They create order.
The vehicles through which the novel explores these issues are the Word, the Book, the Manifesto, the Strategy, the Plan, even the Five Year Plan.
All of these things exist, because we don’t quite know what we need or want. We’re not yet happy, nor do we really know how to get happy. Each one is an apparatus which is offered to us to help in our quest for happiness.
The Credulity of the Non-Believer
Eco loosely quotes G.K. Chesterton as follows:
"When men stop believing in God, it isn’t that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything."
There is some uncertainty about the actual origin and wording of this quotation. I wondered whether it had simply been translated from English to Italian and then back to English, without checking the original. However, the more accurate version of it is:
"When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything."
Filling the Void
Religion maintains that God exists everywhere for us and that "the void does not exist". However, its opponents acknowledge that there is a void, but argue that it should not exist:
"A void had been created, and it has to be filled!"
What is to be done?
Somehow, the Book (whether or not it contains the "Holy Word") has become the vehicle with which to fill the void, create meaning, document beliefs and practices, and address the need to be happy.
Major Religions have their own Holy Book. However, side by side with them are heretical, esoteric and occult works that cater to the same need.
Many fraternities and orders have grown up around these books. [I wonder what proportion of the members are female?] Their members derive order from their order. In the case of the more military orders, the members also get their orders from their order.
To the extent that these books and beliefs have been perceived as heretical or threatening by mainstream religious institutions, a culture of secrecy has grown up around them, hence the term "secret societies".
The Mystery Dance
There is often a sense in which some level of mystery and imprecision needs to be preserved:
"The Templars' mental confusion makes them indecipherable."
Because heretical beliefs are erroneous in the eyes of the Church, Eco implies that error is almost a secondary issue within esoterica:
"An error can be the unrecognised bearer of truth. True esotericism does not fear contradiction."
What’s more important is the question and the mystery, as opposed to the answer and the certainty.
A secret remains enchanting until it has been revealed, at which point it has been emptied of enchantment.
Eco even speculates that the secret might be that there is no secret, as long as those outside the order believe those inside know something they don't know.
Secrecy is more important than the substance of the secret. Perhaps what is most valuable is the bond between the members of the order.
The secret might simply be the framework or glue that initially connects them. Once the order is in place, it can survive of its own accord.
A Post-Modernist Prank
The Post-Modern aspects of the novel derive from the narrative in which its three protagonists (Casaubon, Belbo and Diotallevi) resolve to fabricate a work of esoterica, so that a specialist publisher for which they work can capitalize on a credulous market ("the Plan").
"Foucault’s Pendulum" becomes a novel about the invention and construction of a work of non-fiction that is actually fictitious, perhaps one that even seeks to "arrive at the truth through the painstaking reconstruction of a false text.".
The work needs to have words and facts and connections.
Like the bond of a secret society, the power of words emerges from their connection:
"Any fact becomes important when it’s connected to another. The connection changes the perspective; it leads you to think that every detail of the world, every voice, every word written or spoken has more than its literal meaning, that it tells us of a Secret. The rule is simple: Suspect, only suspect. You can read subtexts even in a traffic sign that says ‘No littering.’ "
"Invent, Invent Wildly"
The protagonists discover that their creative process follows certain apparently spontaneous rules.
The foundation stone is:
"Concepts are connected by analogy. There is no way to decide at once whether an analogy is good or bad, because to some degree everything is connected to everything else."
That said, readers are more comfortable with the conventional, with what they have heard before, with facts with which they are already familiar:
"The connections must not be original. They must have been made before, and the more often the better, by others. Only then do the crossings seem true, because they are obvious."
The connections can be crazy, as long as the facts are recognised.
The protagonists are urged to:
"Invent, invent wildly, paying no attention to connections, till it becomes impossible to summarize."
"Tout se tient" in the end. If "tout se tient" in the end, the connection works. So it’s right. It's right because it works.
This concept and phrase is usually attributed to the semiotician Saussure. In language, every element connects to, supports and is supported by every other element.
You can also see Eco's theories about how we read influencing not just his own novel, but the Book, the Plan that his protagonists are authoring.
Protagonists and Spectators
The characters' level of participation and commitment to the project varies:
"[Belbo] would never be a protagonist, he decided to become, instead, an intelligent spectator."
He can’t write fiction, but he can fabricate non-fiction. He also maintains a diary in which he fictionalizes his past and present.
Ironically, despite his lack of creative self-confidence, Belbo remains a major protagonist in Eco’s novel:
"Fear forced him to be brave. Inventing, he had created the principle of reality."
Existentialism, Doubt and Confidence
Belbo's realism results from courage, which in turn strengthens Casaubon’s resolve.
Casaubon learns the real source of Belbo’s lack of confidence, an event in his childhood when he had to fill in for a trumpeter in an impromptu public performance.
Casaubon concludes that there are for all of us certain decisive moments when we have to confront the essence of our character and fate. How we deal with these moments determines the happiness in the rest of our lives.
These moments don’t necessarily have anything to do with God, Fate or the supernatural. Nor do they depend on the execution of Plans. They do have to deal with self-doubt and our inner reserves, both of energy and of insight.
These discoveries force Casaubon to question his adherence to the principles of the Enlightenment (including Cartesian Doubt).
"I had always thought that doubting was a scientific duty, but now I came to distrust the very masters who had taught me to doubt...
"I devoted myself to Renaissance philosophers and I discovered that the men of secular modernity, once they had emerged from the darkness of the Middle Ages, had found nothing better to do than devote themselves to cabala and magic."
Eat a Peach
Casaubon has his own existential "trumpet moment" at the end of the novel, when he must learn to play with the cards that Fate has dealt him:
"...yet, like Belbo when he played the trumpet, when I bit into the peach, I understood the Kingdom and was one with it."
Ultimately, it’s a moment that only the individual can handle. We have to figure it out for ourselves. There is no Plan, there is no Map.
"Kill me, then, but I won’t tell you there’s no Map. If you can’t figure it out for yourself, tough shit."
"Foucault's Pendulum" takes us on this journey with consummate intelligence, traditional, esoteric and pop cultural allusiveness, literary skill and humour.
The Hollow Obelisk
Casaubon’s Last Letter to His Wife, Lia
Animula vagula blandula, Hospes comesque corporis *
It hurts me to think I might not see you again.
It was all my fault. I was seduced away from you, not by another woman, but by another Other, something I thought was beautiful, because I was helping to construct it.
"People are hungry for plans, for cosmic solutions," you said. "If you create one, they’ll descend on it like wolves. If you make one, they’ll believe it. It’s just make believe, Pow, it’s wrong."
You always knew the book was superficial, that it was a fake, that there was no truth contained between its covers. But I made them all believe it had both truth and depth. Deep down, I knew they desired what this book had to offer: mystery, secrecy, answers, certainty. Even though once they had read it, the mystery would dissipate and they would be left satisfied, but empty, with nothing left, nothing new to strive for. Neither grail nor quest.
My audience was weak, unlike you, who are strong. You don’t need answers from outside. You’ve found them within. In your own body.
"Oh, I almost forgot," you said. "I’m pregnant."
I remember looking at you just before you told me. You were caressing your belly, your breasts, even your ear lobes. I was oblivious. I couldn’t understand these moves you were making. I had always thought of you as so slim and supple. Now I picture you as buxom, rosy-cheeked and healthy – I should have realised that you were pregnant.
You were trying to solve my problem. I was single-minded about that. You spoke confidently. You radiated a serene wisdom. You were luminous. You illuminated both of us. I realise now it might have been your maternal instinct, a fledgling matriarchal authority, that there were three of us present - you, me and Guilio – and that you were speaking for all three.
I know you will take good care of Guilio. Please let him know I will always love him.
* Little soul, you charming little wanderer, my body's guest and partner - Hadrian
A Letter from Lia to Guilio on the Occasion of His Thirteenth Birthday
My dearest son, Giulio, your father wasn’t born a wise man, but he died a wise man. He didn’t plan to be wise or to die when he did, but in many ways it was the result of a Plan, even if it wasn’t only his Plan.
Your father died when he was ready. He died at peace. He died as soon as he had attained peace. He attained his peace when finally he understood his place in the world. He died when there was nothing left to learn and nothing left to understand.
By the time he died, he had learned his place in the cosmos, on this earth, on this rock that is our home.
Your father, Casaubon, was a philosophical man. In the end, the wisdom that he had finally learned gave him great certainty and comfort. You were a big part of it. You gave him certainty and comfort, he called you his philosopher’s stone, that’s how much you meant to him, but equally he hoped and knew that the wisdom he had gained would pass on to you.
This is what he learned and what he wanted me to tell you on his behalf. Having learned, he wanted to teach you.
There is no map. There is no plan. There is only life. There is only us. Your father has gone already. And one day, when I am gone, there will only be you left. But you will have your wife and your children, and each of them will be your philosophers’ stone. Life will pass through your father and me to you and then from you and your wife to your children. These are the connections between us.
What your father learned is no secret, yet few get to know it in their lives. Too many people look without success for secrets, for profundity, for inspiration. Life is only as complicated as you make it. Happiness is an open secret, it’s within you, it’s in your soul, and all you have to do is open it.
I know how happy you have become, how happy you are. I am so proud of you, and I know your father would be too. We are grateful to you, our son, for the happiness you have given us and those who surround you.
"The plan it wasn't much of a plan I just started walking I had enough of this old town And nothing else to do It was one of those nights You wonder how nobody died We started talking You didn't come here to have fun You said: "well I just came for you""
I saw a lot of double bills in the heyday of independent cinemas.
They weren’t just two current release films that had been pa...moreIn Memory of Double Bills
I saw a lot of double bills in the heyday of independent cinemas.
They weren’t just two current release films that had been packaged to eke out some extra dollars for the exhibitor. They were carefully curated films that shared a theme and formed part of a whole season of similarly matched films.
Usually, the season was promoted by a poster that illustrated each film with a fifty word capsule review. For many years, I kept these posters in a folder, at least until I got married and had to start hiding what I hoarded.
The double bills themselves were where I learned about the greats of film culture. Hitchcock, Ford, Godard, Truffaut, Woody Allen, etc.
They whetted an appetite that continues to this day.
The thing about a double bill is that the films could be enjoyed individually, but they also fed meaning to each other.
One of my favourite matches was Antonioni’s “The Passenger” and Polanski’s “The Tenant”, both of which involved a character adopting the persona of another character and then embarking on a journey or travelling under the guise of the other character.
Both films benefited from the juxtaposition, and it made for great discussions between friends when you emerged from the cinema.
Almost 20 years later, I was sitting next to a very appealing, strong, independent, older woman at a film industry lunch, and I told her this story.
She smiled and said, “That was me. I curated those seasons.”
She was then a co-owner of one of the most successful chains of independent cinemas. Unfortunately, her chain didn’t survive the multiplex, nor did double bills, as far as I know.
Film culture is the poorer for it. It can’t just be learned from books, it must be learned in front of a screen, preferably a big one.
Why Don’t You Show Me?
I’ve started with this diversion, because, even though this is my second reading of “Cloud Atlas” and the first was well before I learned there was to be a film, the novel always struck me as filmic.
If it wasn’t made to be filmed (however challenging the prospect), it seemed to be influenced by film, particularly genre film, and possibly the sort of double bills that I had consumed.
I love the fact that David Mitchell’s works ooze film and cultural literacy, not to mention cross-cultural diversity.
It’s one of the things I hope doesn’t disappear as audiences become less genre and art form diverse.
Just as James Joyce alluded to the Classics in “Ulysses”, many modern novelists allude to diverse art forms.
If we restrict our interest to only one or a few, we might not “get” the allusions. And not getting them, we might not pay sufficient attention.
To this extent, I'd argue that “Cloud Atlas” isn't so much a difficult novel, as it just requires an attentive reader.
I’ve Tried and I’ve Tried and I’m Still Mystified
I originally rated the novel three stars on the basis of a reading several years ago, before I joined Good Reads.
Having re-read it with a view to a review, I’ve upgraded my review to five stars. So what happened?
When I finished my re-read, I had decided to rate it four stars.
There were things I still didn’t get, even though they were there on the page in front of me.
As I collated my notes, things started to drop into place and I started to get things, at least I think I did.
My initial reservation was that there were six stories juxtaposed in one book, and I wasn’t convinced that they related to each other adequately.
If together they were supposed to constitute a patchwork quilt, some patches jarred, others weren’t stitched together adequately. I couldn’t see the relationship. It wasn’t manifesting itself to me.
I didn’t think Mitchell had done enough to sew the parts together. I couldn’t understand why the six films on the same bill had been collected together. I didn’t know what the glue was. There was no bond. They were all just there.
If they were supposed to be connected, I couldn’t see the connection.
Who was to blame: Mitchell or me? Was anyone to blame, or did I just need to exert myself a bit harder?
In a way, this review is the story of how I exerted myself a bit harder, got back on top and managed to give the author his due.
I'll try to discuss the novel with minimal plot spoilers. However, many of the themes revolve around aspects of the plot in the six stories.
In an effort to reduce spoilers, I’ve limited the mention of specific stories and characters.
I apologize if this detracts from your enjoyment of the review or your desire to read the novel.
”Where is the Fundamental Mystery?”
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with a mystery or the fact that a mystery might retain its status after some investigation.
Not all mysteries are intended to be worked out or revealed to all. Some things are intended to remain secret. Some things need a password or a code to unlock them. Some things just require a bit of effort or charm or both.
The thing about “Cloud Atlas” is that it consists of six quite disparate stories (a “Cloud Atlas Sextet” in its own right), five of which have been broken into two.
The result is 11 sections, ten of which surround the unbroken sixth story in the middle.
Without disclosing the titles of the stories, they follow the following timeline:
• The present (?);
• A highly corporatized future; and
• A post apocalyptic future (the middle story).
Once you’ve got half-way, the book works back towards 1850 in reverse order.
Getting your head around this structure is the first task. The second is to work out the relationship between the stories. The third is to work out how to pull the whole thing together into one integrated whole.
Choosing a Structural Metaphor
The structure has given rise to metaphors like Russian or Matryoshka dolls or Chinese boxes.
Each successive story is nested or nestled within the next. [One character’s letters survive the burglary of a hotel room, because they are nestled in a copy of Gideon’s Bible.]
Another way to think of it is to pretend that you have opened up six separate books to the middle pages, then sat them on top of each other, starting with the oldest on the bottom, and then bound them together, so now hopefully you’ve got one idea of the structure.
A third way to look at the structure metaphorically is to see the past as embracing the present, and the present embracing the future.
Thus, the past has within it the potential of the present, and the present has within it the potential of the future.
This metaphor raises the second question of the relationship between the layers.
Does one determine the next? Does the past determine the future? What is the relationship or connection?
Where does Mitchell and his novel stand on the continuum between Determinism and Free Will?
Apart from the question of how all 11 sections contribute to an integrated whole, there is a narrative connectedness between the 11 sections.
Characters or objects from one section reappear in others as important narrative elements. In a way, they are like screws or pegs that lock one part of a piece of modular furniture into another, so that the whole doesn’t dissemble.
Various characters (in five out of the six stories) have a comet-shaped birthmark between their shoulder-blade and collarbone.
They also share other personal characteristics, despite not necessarily sharing genders, and there is a suggestion that the five characters with birthmarks might be reincarnations of the same soul.
From a narrative point of view:
• the Journals in Story 1 are found in Story 2.
• The Letters in Story 2 are written to a character in Story 3.
• The music in Story 2 is heard in Story 3. (When Luisa Rey hears the music, she feels that she might have been present when it was composed, hence the implication that she might be a reincarnation of the composer, Robert Frobisher.)
• Story 3 is submitted to a character in Story 4 for publication.
• The character in Story 4 writes a memoir that is filmed, and watched by the character in Story 5.
• An interview with the character in Story 5 is recorded and becomes the “holy book” or “scripture” for a post-apocalyptic religion in Story 6 (even though it is an audio-visual work, not a written work, embodied on an “orison”).
Eternal Recurrence in and of Time
Time is a silent partner in the narrative of the novel.
We start in the past and move forward into the future, before reversing or heading backwards (or forwards into the past?), so that eventually we come full circle:
"Time’s Arrow became Time’s Boomerang."
In this sense, the narrative is revolutionary, if not necessarily gimmicky.
We must assume that the cycle continues to roll or revolve in this fashion ad infinitum.
In Nietzsche’s words, it is an "Eternal Recurrence":
"Everything becomes and recurs eternally - escape is impossible! - Supposing we could judge value, what follows? The idea of recurrence as a selective principle, in the service of strength (and barbarism!!)": Nietzsche
Culture and Civilization, whether good or evil, positive or negative, sophisticated or barbaric, are conveyed through time by people.
Human beings are vessels through which human nature passes into the future, from the past via the present (and vice versa, it seems).
Each of us carries aspects of human nature, ideas, beliefs, biases, prejudices, goals, ambitions, aspirations, appetites, hunger, thirst, desire, the need for more, the inability to be satisfied, the inability to be appeased.
Human nature is concrete, permanent, eternal, continuous, recurring.
Individuals are separate, discrete, temporary, dispensable, ephemeral.
Like an oak tree, we are born, we grow, we die.
A body is just a vehicle for human nature (within a family, its DNA).
You can see that, if each of us is a vehicle, then when we pass the baton onto the next runner, we (or the human nature that we carried) is reincarnated in our successor.
If our characteristics continue, they succeed, instead of succumbing.
In this sense, a comet birthmark is just the mark or marque or ink or stain that we pass onto our successor as evidence of the eternal chain of which each of us is but a link.
You Can’t Stop Me, Because I am Determined
It’s arguable that there is a determinism or fatalism going on here.
However, I think Mitchell acknowledges Free Will as well, again, both in a positive and a negative sense.
Much of the novel is concerned with the Nietzschean will to power, the ascent to power, the acquisition and abuse of power, the use of power to victimize and oppress.
The character, Alberto Grimaldi, the CEO of the Corporation Seaboard Power (surely the name is well chosen) argues:
"Power. What do we mean? ‘The ability to determine another man’s luck.’...
"Yet how is it some men attain mastery over others while the vast majority live and die as minions, as livestock? The answer is a holy trinity.
"First: God-given gifts of charisma.
"Second: the discipline to nurture these gifts to maturity, for though humanity’s topsoil id fertile with talent, only one seed in ten thousand will ever flower – for want of discipline…
"Third: the will to power.
"This is the enigma at the core of the various destinies of men. What drives some to accrue power where the majority of their compatriots lose, mishandle, or eschew power? Is it addiction? Wealth? Survival? Natural selection? I propose these are all pretexts and results, not the root cause.
"The only answer can be ‘There is no ‘Why’. This is our nature. ‘Who’ and ‘What’ run deeper than ‘Why?’ "
While human nature shapes us, I don’t think Mitchell is positing a completely Determinist cosmos.
What people do impacts on their Fate.
Some rise to the top as Supermen or Ubermenschen, some fall to the bottom as Downstrata or Untermenschen.
Some Men are predators, others victims. Some rise, some fall. In between, some are “half-fallen”, Mitchell calls them the “Diagonal People”.
Like the character Isaac Sachs, their tragic flaw is that they are “too cowardly to be a warrior, but not enough of a coward to lie down and roll over like a good doggy.”
Virtue Incarnate (or Reincarnate?)
Mitchell’s six stories feature heroes (of sorts), five of whom are or might be reincarnations of the same soul.
Each of them has the courage to fight against evil or power or oppression or cruelty.
They are idealists, liberals, [affirmative] activists, boat rockers, shit-stirrers, young hacks, non-conformists, dissidents, rebels, revolutionaries, rogues, rascals, “picaros” (the Spanish word from which the word “picaresque” derives), messiahs and naughty boys.
They eschew duplicity, dishonesty and falseness, they seek authenticity, honesty and truth:
"Truth is the gold."
"Truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths."
"The true true is presher’n’rarer’n diamonds."
They oppose power, corruption, and lies, tyranny and mutation. [They must be fans of New Order and Blue Oyster Cult.]
Talkin’ About a Revolution
Our heroes create messages and symbols to overcome tyranny: journals, epistles, memoirs, novels, music, films, video confessions, “orisons” (a word that actually means “prayers”), scripts, catechisms, declarations, even new post-apocalyptic languages.
Like hippies ("the love and peace generation"), they oppose mainstream culture with their own counter-cultural artifacts, as if the reincarnated souls, the Grateful Living, are perpetuating the Grateful Dead.
The eponymous artwork, the "Cloud Atlas Sextet", is composed by Robert Frobisher, a bisexual wunderkind:
"Cloud Atlas holds my life, is my life, now I’m a spent firework; but at least I’ve been a firework."
Just like Guy Fawkes, it’s explosive and revolutionary.
Frobisher composes the work while engaged as an amenuensis for the older composer Vyvyan Ayrs, who believes that the role of the musician or artist is to “make civilization ever more resplendent”.
Perhaps ingenuously, for one of the reincarnates, Frobisher counters:
“How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are mere scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.”
His own composition resounds throughout the entire novel. It also describes the central metafictional device that Mitchell uses to construct his fiction:
"A sextet for overlapping soloists: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late, but it’s the first thing I think of when I wake, and the last thing I think of before I fall asleep, even if J is in my bed. She should understand, the artist lives in two worlds."
Artists might live in a private world and a public world, but there is a sense in which they also live both in the present and in the future.
An Atlas of Clouds
At a more metaphorical level, the Atlas contains maps of the human nature that Mitchell describes.
The Clouds carry the vagaries of human nature across time, encircling the world on their journey, obscuring and frustrating our aspirations and desires:
"Three or four times only in my youth did I glimpse the Joyous Isles, before they were lost to fogs, depressions, cold fronts, ill winds, and contrary tides... I mistook them for adulthood. Assuming they were a fixed feature in my life's voyage, I neglected to record their latitude, their longitude, their approach. Young ruddy fool. What wouldn't I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds."
Revolutionary or Gimmicky?
Mitchell directly asks us to consider whether his own work is gimmicky.
Superficially, it is, but what finally convinced me that the novel deserves five stars is a conviction that his subject matter and his metafictional devices are genuinely and effectively stitched together.
It wasn’t easy to come by this realization. I had to work on it, but it was worth it.
Men and Women and Eroticism
Women play a significant role as both characters and subject matter in the novel.
To a certain extent, they represent an alternative to the corrupt corporate culture symbolized by Seaboard Power (even though its Head of Publicity is a woman):
"Men invented money. Women invented mutual aid."
There is a sense in which men [males] are driven by the hunger, the acquisitiveness, at the heart of the novel’s concerns, far more so than women:
”Yay, Old Un’s Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more…Oh, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay.”
Still, men and women still get into bed with each other, and the sexual encounters in the novel are usually either entertaining or slyly erotic, no matter how economically they are described:
”Accepted this proxy fig leaf cum olive branch and our lovemaking that night was almost affectionate.”
”Our sex was joyless, graceless, and necessarily improvised, but it was an act of the living. Stars of sweat on Hae-Joo’s back were his gift to me, and I harvested them on my tongue.”
[For all the talk of comet-shaped birthmarks, this view of sex as an act of the living will stay with me for the rest of my life, even when I can no longer lift myself up on my elbows.]
"Eva, Because her name is a synonym for temptation...all my life, sophisticated idiotic women have taken it upon themselves to understand me, to cure me, but Eva knows I'm terra incognita and explores me unhurriedly...Because her laughter spurts through a blowhole in the top of her head and sprays all over the morning...here she is, in these soundproofed chambers of my heart."
And isn’t this exactly what life is all about?
To be understood, to be cured, to be explored (unhurriedly), to be laughed at, to be sprayed all over, to be in love, in the soundproofed chambers of your heart.
David Mitchell, this image alone deserves five stars.
Jordi Savall - "Por Que Llorax Blanca Nina"(Sephardic Jewish music from Sarajevo)"
'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form. "Come in," she said, "I'll give you shelter from the storm."
This was a re-read of a novel that I first read when I was about 14 and that has stayed fresh in my mind ever since.
It was recommended to me by my cricket coach and favourite teacher, John Carr, who taught me English for five years and cemented my passion for Literature in the early 70’s. His Master’s Thesis was on Evelyn Waugh’s "Sword of Honour” Trilogy (which I’ve also read and plan to re-read).
I was amused to learn from Steven Moore that one John Carr rushed out a fake version of volume 3 of "Tristram Shandy” four months before Laurence Sterne had published his own version. Long live homage and fan fiction!
This review is dedicated to both John Carr’s, one a teacher and the other a shit stirrer!
"Let Me Go On, and Tell My Story My Own Way”
The version of the novel that I read was 528 pages long. Don’t be afraid of the perceived length. The chapters are short and easy to read, plus it’s a lot of fun, once you get into the rhythm of the writing. Like a slippery slide, the hardest part is getting on; the rest is all downhill.
If you read anything about "Tristram Shandy”, you’ll discover it is full of digressions. This is only partly true. The assessment assumes that there is a path from which the author departs. It’s probably more accurate to say that he never embarks on a set path in the first place.
If a line can be said to be the shortest distance between two points, Sterne never really sets out to get from A to B, or to do it efficiently or quickly. He simply sits down to tell his story his way, as if we readers were sitting across from him at a pub or smoking our pipes in front of a fireplace. He’s in no hurry, but equally importantly neither are we. He simply asks that we let him get on and tell his story his own way.
Left to his own devices, he is individualistic and unconventional, and so is his novel.
In Which the Author Turns a Story Into a Plot
Steven Moore differentiates between a story and a plot:
"The story consists of the events in a novel as they would occur in chronological order; the plot refers to the novelist’s particular arrangements of those events.”
While Moore identifies the three key elements of the story, I don’t think they’re particularly important. What is most appealing is the methodology Sterne uses to convert them into a plot. For me, the most interesting aspects of the novel are the self-referential discussions of the writing of the novel and the relationship between author, work and reader.
These aspects are pure metafiction, and you could argue that no author has bettered them, before or after.
The Beauty of the Line (or the Line of Beauty)
The prevailing view of a narrative in a traditional realistic novel is linear. In the interests of efficiency and speed (i.e., distance travelled divided by time), the plot can be described in terms of a straight line.
A straight line has a mathematical and a scientific significance. However, it also has a moral, creative and social significance.
A straight line does not deviate to the left or the right. If we don’t deviate, we stay on the straight and narrow. Christians say it is the right path or the path of the righteous. Cicero describes it as "an emblem of moral rectitude”.
If the line is vertical, it is upright or virtuous. If something falls from its top to its bottom, it experiences a divine gravitational force. By extension, the righteous feel gravitas.
Etymologically, all of these words are related: straight, direct, erect, right, upright, rectitude, righteous. The physical qualities morph into the moral and from there (via recht) into the legal.
Just as the right-handed ostracise the left-handed, the straight ostracise the bent, the crooked, the digressive and the divergent.
It’s this that Sterne rebels against.
He never sets out to follow the straight and narrow. His goal, so long as his neck remains flexible, is to follow his nose and his gaze, wherever they might lead him. And where he goes, so does his tale. It’s our pleasure and privilege to accompany him.
The Life of Beauty
Sterne takes a straight line and bends or curves it. He makes it more curvaceous, until it is closer to a line of beauty in the sense meant by Hogarth in his “Analysis of Beauty”.
To quote wiki:
"According to this theory, S-shaped curved lines signify liveliness and activity and excite the attention of the viewer as contrasted with straight lines, parallel lines, or right-angled intersecting lines, which signify stasis, death, or inanimate objects.”
Thus, Sterne’s aversion for a straight line reflects an attraction to vitality, motion and dynamism.
"Tristram Shandy” is nothing if not about vitality.
"So vary'd he, and of his tortuous train Curl'd many a wanton wreath, in fight of Eve, To lure her eye."
Of Riddles and Mysteries
Sterne’s objection to the straight line is also an objection to the logical processes that appear to govern our understanding of the world.
He doesn’t necessarily come across as a mystic. However, it seems that we need at least intuition to experience and enjoy the best that the world has to offer:
"We live amongst riddles and mysteries - the most obvious things, which come in our way, have dark sides, which the quickest sight cannot penetrate into, and even the clearest and most exalted understandings amongst us find ourselves puzzled and at a loss in almost every cranny of nature's works.”
Sterne objects to the plain, the joyless, the boring, that which lacks interest:
"There is nothing more pleasing to a traveller, or more terrible to travel-writers, than a large rich plain...[that presents nothing to the eye, but one unvaried picture of plenty.]”
Of Conquests and Concupiscence
While form might override content in "Tristram Shandy”, it does rear its head in the last trimester of the novel, when it becomes clear that the true concern of the characters, both male and female, is sex. They are, one and all, seeking "something perhaps more than friendship, less than love,” at least to start with.
In retrospect, much of the dialogue is just playful or flirtatious or "talking bawdy”, as was the case with Sterne’s predecessor, Rabelais. The ultimate goal, for a male, is to tempt a pretty woman "into a conversation with a pinch of snuff”:
"Why could not a man sit down in the lap of content here, and dance and sing and say his prayers and go to heaven with this nut-brown maid?”
Ironically, this was in France, which elsewhere Sterne would describe as "foutre-land”, though I confess I can’t give an accurate contemporary translation of the term.
Love and lust and amours (in which the reader longs for uncle Toby to get his oats) consist of thrusts and parries, just as much as any military battle. Fortifications and defences are broken down. Seductions follow campaigns and sieges (if you’re lucky).
Of the Love Between an Author and a Reader
So, ultimately, Sterne seems to argue, "talking of love is making it.” If so, then you might well agree, what’s the hurry?
One lover’s digression is another’s foreplay. The point is to be aligned, if not vertically, at least horizontally.
Equally, the process of writing and reading follows some of the rules of attraction and love, at least to the extent that it depends on good communication and the sharing of the creative burdens between the two participants:
"Writing, when properly managed, is but a different name for conversation…The truest respect which you can pay to the reader’s understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself.”
Thus, when the pleasure is equally shared, it’s possible that Tristram wasn’t necessarily complaining when he moaned, “the more I write, the more I shall have to write.”
Perhaps what he really meant was that, the more I love, the more I shall have to love.
If this sounds like a "fertile fancy” or mere exaggeration, then, like Sterne:
"I beg the reader will assist me here...”
Van Morrison - "Help Me" (from the live album "It's Too Late to Stop Now")
We decided to catch up for a barbecue lunch in the park, rather than the sort of dinner party we used to have.
It was difficult getting everybody together, what with kids' sport and, for those whose kids had already grown up, there was some initial reluctance because the football season had started, whatever code you followed.
I started to look at my wardrobe on Thursday, I still have everything I've ever bought that hasn't physically worn out, even jeans that I won't fit into until, perhaps, the advanced stages of cancer.
I know it might sound bad, but I sort of look forward to that day (I hasten to add there's no history of cancer in the family), so that I can reminisce about what I did in those bellbottoms, purchased and worn before they were retro.
I wondered if a T-shirt would be too un-ostentatious. F.M. Sushi suggested I wear something No Logo, though she stopped short of recommending a polo. I agreed with her.
I thanked her for her advice and held her to me, full body length, every inch of contact an expression of our love and gratitude to each other.
She is my beautiful wife, my rock, I can't imagine now what I saw in decades of promiscuity and seed-spilling before I met her. I love the way we hold each other. I will never tire of her opinions and the way she tentatively proffers advice, as if I might reject it, because I didn't think of it first.
I might have done that once, but no longer. I listen before I speak, I seek first to understand an idea and then to improve it, if possible and only if necessary.
It started to rain on Friday afternoon. I looked at F.M. Sushi and she reassured me that everything would be OK, in her usual "don't fret" way.
For once she was wrong, not that a minor deluge is a catastrophe.
Saturday morning, everyone started to phone, "Is it still on?"
Josh and Mary decided that they'd stay at home, indoors, Mary had a bit of a sniffle, she didn't want anyone else to catch it. I replied that I was more concerned for her health than ours.
Josh said they'd take a raincheck and I laughed. It was good to see his old sense of humour resurfacing. I assume he meant it as a joke. He would have once.
When the rain intensified, I realised it had put an end to the plan that we all walk to the park.
I decided to do another ring-around and suggested that we change the venue to our place.
A few more pulled out. I was sort of grateful. The new place isn't really set up to host more than a dozen people at a time. Still, we should be grateful for small mercies.
Peter and Sally arrived first, by cab. Their car hadn't started on account of the rain. Peter was carrying a wine carton from a New Zealand vineyard I hadn't heard of. When he placed it on the kitchen bench, I lifted the lid and discovered that he'd brought a dozen bottles of Perrier.
I looked at him and thanked him both verbally and with the enthusiasm evident in my eyes.
I hadn't been looking forward to alcohol, even a glass or two for the old times.
Mark and Nina arrived with some home-made pastries for dessert. Unfortunately, they had to leave early, when their baby-sitter rang, panicking about the water level in the front yard.
The girls made a nice salad and we broke bread, before they retreated to their rooms to do their homework. Mandy offered to give Peter and Sally a lift home, if it was still raining when they were ready to go.
We laughed and chatted for an hour altogether on the deck. It started to pour even harder, so Peter suggested that we move indoors, he'd been looking at his watch furtively and I realised that he was keen to watch the football.
It was the first Saturday game of the season. It was funny, the four of us sitting there, couples with arms around each other, the rain beating on the corrugated iron roof, while the players raced around, bashing each other, in total sunlight, all optimistic about what the new season held in store for them.
Just as the game finished, there was a break in the clouds here, too.
Peter and Mary declined the offer of a lift from Mandy and decided to walk home. It wasn't far. Thirty minutes max.
I let an hour go by, before ringing them. They'd arrived home, safe and dry. I was grateful.
There wasn't much to clean up. F.M. Sushi had done most of it while everybody was here.
No cigarette butts, just a few Perrier bottles.
Later when I looked in the fridge to see what I might whip up for dinner, I noticed that there were four bottles of Perrier left.
I still like the way you can end up with a bit of a private stash when you host a party.
These comments are not a considered review of the novel itself, but contain some responses to Paul Bryant's excellent review of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho: A Reader's Guide (Continuum Contemporaries) by Julian Murphet (and the comments it stimulated):
I originally posted my thoughts as a comment on Paul's review, but am not sure whether that was fair to Paul. So I have moved them to this page, edited them slightly and deleted my original comments.
Where Do Serial Killers Come From?
Paul's review created a debate about the likely class or wealth of most serial killers. I felt that this issue was a bit of a sideshow to Paul's main arguments. But it did make me think about the real issue of how to categorise serial killers in the first place. To be honest, serial killers don't really interest me as a true crime genre or area of research or reading. However, even if someone did scientifically verify that fewer rich dudes are serial killers, I would want to pry into the statistics. It might just mean that fewer rich dudes got caught; or that the poor guys in some cases might have been the patsies of rich guys, etc.
What is a Serial Killer?
But a more important point of distinction is how we define a serial killer. Is a Mafia foot soldier who commits multiple murders for the benefit of the Family a serial killer? Are the rich guys at the top of the Mafia serial killers if they authorise or direct the murders?
What's Wrong with Me, Doctor?
And more recently there was a classic example of what we could easily define as a rich serial killer in my own state. This person wasn't found to have intentionally killed a series of people in separate incidents, but he was found to have recklessly or negligently killed them. He was a medical doctor whose treatment and surgery was found to be culpable. Wasn't there also a recent case of a doctor in the UK who "killed" a number of patients as well? So you don't have to be a shooter or a slasher to be a serial killer. If you were a doctor, you could dress up your serial killings as sloppy work.
In Paul's review and the resulting comments, there was a lot of discussion about the amount of violence in the book.. The amount or proportion has some interesting history and precedents in the law of obscenity. This area of the law interests me as a point of intersection between morality, political philosophy and the law.
When there was a defence that a work had literary or artistic merit that justified the alleged obscene or offensive material, it was sometimes counter-argued that there was so much of it that it might have overwhelmed the inoffensive or literary or artistic content. So lawyers and judges got themselves distracted by arguments about amount and size (we all know lawyers are preoccupied by these things anyway). You can see that, if someone says that there was only 10% violence, then that presumably means that there was 90% art or literature. Therefore, the 10% is OK. This whole argument relies on the legal distinction for its validity. But then I think you're entitled to argue that if the very subject matter of the book or work of art is violence or sex (or blasphemy), shouldn't it be permissible to have 100% of your work devoted to your subject matter? Isn't it how you write that determines whether it is literary or artistic? Conversely, the literary merit of the 90% might not necessarily justify the grossness of the 10% (which is sort of linked with the gratuitousness argument, as well as the old practice of sticking a few pages of pornography in between unrelated serious articles).
How Do You Assess Size or Amount in a Film?
Part of the reason I've yapped on monotonously about this is that these concepts started to become difficult to apply to film about violence or sex. You couldn't realistically make 90% of the film deal with some other subject matter in order to justify the 10% that was naughty. It would be interesting (academically) to calculate the proportion of violence in the film of AP, but I would venture to say that it would be higher than 10% (not that it really matters on my argument). Ultimately, this sort of problem with film helped contribute to the system of classification of literature and film and more recently games (G, PG, M, R, X, etc) that replaced the old law of obscenity (that was applied in the Oz trials). So the material is now permitted, but regulated and restricted in its circulation. Within this system of regulation, it doesn't matter whether someone finds content shocking or appalling. They don't have to buy it and read or view or review it. As long as they don't have it thrust down their throats publicly or on free to air TV or in newspapers.
Does It Make Any Difference If It's Satire?
Within this framework of classification, it doesn't really matter to me (at least) whether AP was satirical. It is enough that BEE made an artistic choice to write about violence.
Illegal or Immoral?
The legal arena has moved on from amount and size (to some extent), so I think people should forget about turning their sense of offence into some sort of legal attack every time they hear about something they don't like personally (see the Bill Henson dispute discussed in David Marr's book).
People might still have a moral objection to the material, but I think they should express their objection in the moral arena, not the legal arena. They should just express their disgust if they feel so bad about it and let other people decide whether they want to read or watch it. Then if they want to change the law, they can make it an election issue at election time, which they always do anyway.(less)
Well, I finished and I'm glad I persisted. You know how dogs sometimes sniff each other for ages before deciding to hump...moreA Whiff and a Sniff and I'm Off
Well, I finished and I'm glad I persisted. You know how dogs sometimes sniff each other for ages before deciding to hump? I was like that for a few years before I read the book, but more importantly I sniffed around ineffectually for the first 100 pages and could easily have blamed the book for my lack of engagement. I read the last 300 pages in a couple of sittings. I had to get on a roll. But once you commit, the book pulls you, rather than you having to push the book. In the beginning, I was afraid that it was going to be like a bowl of two kilos of green jelly that was just too rich or disgusting to finish. Instead, I felt it was just the right amount. So, some reactions.
I thought "Confederacy" was very much like a zany TV sitcom. There was minimal description of scene and action. However, the dialogue was consistently high quality and very, very funny. You do want to write down some of the lines, so that you can use them on your friends, but secretly you know that you'll never get into a situation where they'd be equally appropriate or funny. You just have to recommend the book to the right person.
Initially, I probably made the mistake of confusing JK Toole with his protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly. However, when I realised that Toole was a slim, neat, tidy English teacher, quite unlike the obese Ignatius, I started to imagine Toole reading extracts from the book in class. Apparently, he was really popular with his students. I could just imagine the sense of privilege hearing him reading from "Confederacy". I can imagine the fits of laughter his students would have had as they heard some of the sentences and expressions emerge from his mouth. I like to imagine Toole alive and vital.
Ignatius is a resident of 1960's New Orleans, the fat kid in school who turns out to be a genius, but has no social graces. I don't recall him reading a book in the novel, but he is obviously well-read. He has constructed his own medieval world-view by which he judges everything and everybody around him. He sees himself as "an avenging sword" in a crusade on behalf of taste and decency, theology and geometry and the cultivation of a Rich Inner Life. He speaks in a wonderful, bookish formality that really confounds and pisses off everybody around him: "Do you think that I am going to perambulate about in that sinkhole of vice?" When he combines it with a dose of sarcasm, it's hilarious.
Ignatius is intellectually arrogant, he judges others harshly, he is removed from reality. He is literally and metaphorically larger than life: "The grandeur of my physique, the complexity of my worldview, the decency and taste implicit in my carriage, the grace with which I function in the mire of today's world - all of these at once confuse and astound Clyde." It's tempting to wonder whether Toole intended him to be an inept, but God-like genius, someone who came to the world in order to lead people to Heaven on Earth. There isn't an evil bone in his ample body. But he isn't virtuous as we would normally use the word. He's motivated by the greater good, only he hasn't factored people into the equation. When he ventures into reality for some purpose or other, it inevitably results in chaos and disorder, so there's a sense in which he's an agent of chaos. Ultimately, I think Ignatius isn't the Messiah, he's just a haughty, naughty boy.
Much has been written about the influences on the novel. This is probably something better left to the individual reader, after you've read the book. Suffice it to say that I probably wasn't conscious of a lot of the influences, other than the obvious references to Boethius' "The Consolations of Philosophy". In one of his more benevolent moments, Ignatius says of "Consolations": "The book teaches us to accept that which we cannot change. It describes the plight of a just man in an unjust society." Ironically, Ignatius sets out to change just about everything in his life, whether consciously or subconsciously. He is not content with conformity: "They would try to make me into a moron who liked television and new cars and frozen food." Whatever the influences, "Confederacy" has an artistic integrity of its own.
The Cloistered Mind
Ignatius starts off sloth-like (nowadays he would play games and drink copious amounts of Coke all day and all of the night): "I was emulating the poet Milton by spending my youth in seclusion, meditation and study". His college love interest, Myrna Minkoff, is awake up to the fact that he has closed his "mind to both love and society", a "strange medieval mind in its cloister".
Up from the Sloth
Ignatius' mother embarrasses and coaxes him into getting a job, which is the beginning of his interaction with the wider world. "It is clearly time for me to step boldly into our society, not in the boring, passive manner of the Myrna Minkoff school of social action, but with great style and zest." Structurally, on his journey, the novel loosely deals with the three taboos in polite society: sex, religion and politics (though not necessarily in that order). Ignatius ventures through this subject matter on the way to some sort of climax or revelation at the end of the book.
The Importance of Being Earnest
On the way, Toole has lots of fun with his subject matter and influences. Ignatius strikes up an alliance with an openly gay character in their political battle: "I suspect that beneath your offensively and vulgarly effeminate facade there may be a soul of sorts." When his new soul mate hands him his business card, Ignatius ejaculates, "Oh, my God, you can't really be named Dorian Greene." Dorian responds, "Yes, isn't that wild?" Together they set off to "Save the World Through Degeneracy". Ignatius is all the more attracted to this scheme, because he knows what effect it will have on Myrna: "The scheme is too breathtaking for the literal, liberal minx mind mired in a claustrophobic clutch of cliches."
A Party in the City of Vice
As "Confederacy" works towards its climax, the action escalates. It starts at a fund-raising party in an apartment, then it goes into the streets of this home of the Mardi Gras, a Carnival-esque city of vice, and then finally to the strip joint, "Night of Joy". Failing to negotiate his way through the debauchery, Ignatius ends up ejected and dejected in the street, where he is almost run over by the reality of a city bus.
I don't want to make too much of this point, but I wondered whether the three main characters of "Confederacy" line up like this in terms of Freud's trichotomy: Ignatius: Ego Mother: Super-Ego Myrna: Id. These three aspects of Ignatius' life and personality work their way to some sort of resolution at the end of the book. Whether Freud was a conscious influence or strategy, it is possible that Freud's trichotomy might just be a nice metaphor for the influences on our worldview.
After all of the fun and games, it's difficult to predict how Toole would end his farce. But ultimately he was a romantic at heart, and there is a happy ending. Myrna visits Ignatius with the intention of removing him from the City of Vice and the vice-like grip of his mother. Her solution is to take him to New York, where she has been living. You wonder whether this is just swapping one city of vice for another, but to them New York represents a city of light, possibly of like minds, a cosmopolitan alternative to the conservative southern backwater of New Orleans. The story ends as they head out on the road. But we know what is in store for Ignatius and Myrna in New York: love and society and, perhaps, just perhaps, lots of sex. Ignatius ends his journey with the most romantic thing he could say to reconcile with Myrna: "To think that I fought your wisdom for years". Toole's students would have had tears in their eyes.
I don't think I have ever cried so hard and so long as when I arrived at the end of this book.
In Defence of Slow Reading
I read it at a time when I had the time and inclination to embrace and be embraced by a genuine epic. I don't know whether I would be as patient now, but that is my loss. Hopefully, you, with the time available to you, will be more patient than me and you will be rewarded more recently as well. Some things in life, as Paul Keating once said of his political opponent, should be done slowly. This book and great literature in general are good examples. I have dropped a star only to protect you from length and sadness, but if you fear neither, it's a five star achievement. (less)
Warning: Some alcoholic substances were consumed by the author of this review. The rest, though regrettably significant in quantity, were consumed by the keyboard of his thirsty desktop computer, which wishes to state on its own behalf and in its own defence that none of the opinions expressed in this review reflect its opinions or state of mind at the time.
Things I'm Prepared to Swear About
I do solemnly swear that I bought this book today, 6 March, 2011. It only cost $16, which was a bargain. It has a different cover, but that's cool, I hope. It's based on the 1960 translation from the English. It's 933 pages long, but the font size is much bigger than I feared, so I'm OK with that. I think of it as value for money in this era when the counter culture has been superseded by the over-the-counter culture (or should that be the uber-counter culture for us Buffy fans?).
Upside Down and Inverted
I haven't been able to find any inverted commas in my version. This might mean that this book is all action and no dialogue. Or it might mean that they hadn't invented inverted commas in the days of Ulysses. Either that or they were all uninverted then.
The March of a Thousand Wikipedes
I am thinking of writing all of the headings from the Wikipedia article on Ulysses at the beginning of each chapter (in pencil, in case someone edits them while I'm reading the book), because I'm sure it will aid comprehension.
My Mother, a Clear Mind and Anthony Burgess
My mother always said that a clear mind aids comprehension. However, I'm not prepared to stop drinking for as long as it takes me to read the "Greatest Novel of the Century" (Anthony Burgess, Observer). I don't know who Anthony Burgess is (I haven't checked his WP article, if he's got one). However, this dude needs to seriously update his opinion. Everybody knows that Ulysses was written last century, der (I've just realised I don't know how to spell "der". If only I could txt in my revu, sir).
Another Observation by a Different Observer
You can bet that my review won't just say I'm an Observer. I'm going to proudly proclaim that I am the 12,975th most popular Good Reads reviewer of the first week of March, 2011 (how contemporary can you get)?
Should I Really Be Committed?
Well, that's my review of the front and back cover and an arbitrarily chosen page in the middle (unfortunately, for a supposedly dirty book, it didn't fall open on any particular page). I suppose I should commit to reading it now. I must admit that, despite the font size, I still find this task daunting. Everybody I know says that reading Ulysses requires a lifetime of commitment. I don't think I'm ready for a lifetime of commitment. I'm a male, for dog's sake.
However, I do promise to leave it somewhere conspicuous, where impressionable people (the "impressionista") can see it and be suitably impressionistic. If they say, "Shit, have you read Ulysses?", I'll be honest and say, "Only enough to write a 600 word review for an online journal of opinion read by 13,000 highly opinionated professional opinionists, der". I don't know how many words I've actually written. I can't work out how to use Word Count on Good Reads. But who's counting, we're all readers here!
A Show of Great Promise
So what should I promise? I do solemnly and sincerely swear a lot, but not idly, and in order not to be deemed idol, I promise to read one chapter by the end of this financial year. In fact, I'm feeling kinda sporty now.
III, II, I, Blast Off
Hang on, what's this bit at the beginning with the strange page numbering? lxxv, lxxvi? Roman numerals. I'll skip that. There's a reason why Latin is a dead language. If their words are all cactus, why should their numbers count? Show me the greatest novel of the last century and I'll show you a book that's English. Now, "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan..." Gees, I'm into it already.