I am a believer in the canon of Western literature. The canon is not simply a list of great books, but as all books are in conversation with one anoth...moreI am a believer in the canon of Western literature. The canon is not simply a list of great books, but as all books are in conversation with one another, there are certain books which we really ought to be familiar with if we wish to understand all later literary texts and experiments. Obviously The Iliad is a prime example.
As I read and write continuously in my life, I don't have time to read all the books I'd like to, and so I've taken to listening to canonical texts as audiobooks when I'm alone in the car, especially during drives to and from work, an approach I'd recommend for everyone. You'd be surprised how quickly you can check off another book you've long known you really ought to read.
I can't say that I'd care to ever read/listen to The Iliad again, but my understanding of the phylogeny of the Western canon is certainly improved, and I'll grasp more allusions in the future, and no doubt plant some of my own in my own writing. That's important. The Iliad is essentially about . . . well, you already know what it's about. When I got to "The End" I Tweeted: "Just finished that cornerstone of Western civilization, The Iliad. Feel like I want to go slaughter teeming masses of my fellow man." It's interesting to discover that the roots of our modern gung ho testosterone-soaked might-makes-right lowbrow Super Bowl mentality trace back in an unbroken chain through three millennia, and no doubt more. This is what, I think, The Iliad teaches us about the human condition. Ain't always pretty. (less)
For whatever reason, I kept coming across whiny Tweets from students who were being compelled to read Thomas C Foster's How to Read Literature Like a...moreFor whatever reason, I kept coming across whiny Tweets from students who were being compelled to read Thomas C Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor over the summer in advance of a college lit class.
Now, I've been reading Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism for about a year now, and I'm probably about three-quarters of the way through that book, which I find interesting enough, although obviously I can't drink it all down in one gulp. So I read a little bit about Foster's book here and there online, and it sounded like something I'd like to check out. When by chance I came across it at a local used bookstore a few weeks back, I snapped it up.
This isn't the greatest book I've ever read (i.e., Ulysses), but for what it is, it's pretty excellent. In fact it's pretty simple reading, and very fast reading, but this is one of those very rare books that I couldn't put down. If you read through the whole book and pay attention to what you're reading, I don't see how you could ever look at a novel or a short story through the same eyes ever again. Foster peels back the superficial layer of the story that few ever penetrate and exposes the symbolic and mythological guts that inform the best stories our civilization has produced.
I wish that when I was a senior in high school I'd had an English teacher who had assigned this book as a reading assignment. Of course it hadn't been written yet then, but still . . . Anyone who is interested in reading literature, or in trying to write the same, really ought to read this book and then move on to Northrop Frye.
Because I admire Ed Bearss and his incomparable commitment to the preservation of Civil War battlefields and the stories with which they're associated...moreBecause I admire Ed Bearss and his incomparable commitment to the preservation of Civil War battlefields and the stories with which they're associated, it pains me to report that reading this book of his is not unlike reading a master's thesis: a surpassingly dry and tedious master's thesis. This extremely well-researched, slim volume is impressively concise, but unless you're hopelessly obsessed specifically with this one particular battle, to the near exclusion of all other aspects of life, and unless you're already so intimately familiar with all of the officers who take to the field herein that reading one of their myriad names instantly conjures a vast biography in your mind, this book will probably put you to sleep after every page or two. The problem is in the lopsided minute-fact-to-compelling-narrative ratio. The extensive battlefield maps are pretty good, although occasionally unit designations are by a regiment's commander's name while the accompanying text focuses on the names of higher echelon commanders or vice versa so that text/map comparisons becomes a frustrating exercise. I'd welcome a better summary-analysis of what could have been or should have been at Wilson's Creek, but so far I haven't found one in this book or elsewhere.
The reputation of Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve (1831-1924) as an American scholar of the classics, particularly of Greek studies and of philology more g...moreThe reputation of Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve (1831-1924) as an American scholar of the classics, particularly of Greek studies and of philology more generally, is beyond dispute. But the two essays of his which are combined in this volume, "The Creed of the South" (1892) and "A Southerner in the Peloponnesian War" (1897), have not aged well, to put it charitably. The value of this book is more historic than historical.
I had hoped for penetrating insights into the daily life of a confederate soldier during the American Civil War, but few are to be found here. Instead, Gildersleeve spends his time flaunting his erudition, which probably passed for high-brow diversion in his own time, but which now comes across as irksome and highfalutin. This is especially true in the first essay, and one inevitably considers that if this kind of Aeolian pretense that passed for Southern scholarship – especially long and obscure, sentimental passages in Latin and Greek intercut with the text-proper – while the North was emphasizing a more pragmatic curriculum – training in practical engineering and the kind of direct discourse serviceable to an expanding industrial culture – then perhaps the outcome of the war was less in doubt than might have been supposed. Flowery rhetoric will carry you so far until it puts you to sleep. The second essay is built upon a rather bizarre premise of comparing and contrasting the American Civil War with the Peloponnesian War, and this seems like an argument that only another philologist might conceivably appreciate.
For all its author's scholarship, this book is regrettable revisionist, although there's little doubt its author is sincere in all he says. The problem is the disconnect between what is said about the South's reasons for fighting years after the war had ended in contrast to what was said before and during the war. Here we have the usual "it was about states rights, not about slavery" mantra alongside the unironic assertion that white Southerners would never have debased themselves to be enslaved by the North. The historic aspect here is that its author is one of the earliest advocates of the Lost Cause theory.
One challenge of reading young poets is the generational divide. All ages face the same life-problems, but the starting assumptions with which we conf...moreOne challenge of reading young poets is the generational divide. All ages face the same life-problems, but the starting assumptions with which we confront them are commonly at wild odds across demographic lines. Young minds engage objects and events with different verbal tools than do their forebears, and these do not always easily translate. When one overlays these temporal distinctions with the spatial ones of foreign cultural filters, the interpretive puzzle grows that much more pronounced.
Adam Mieczyński's new book of poetry makes for an uneven reading experience for these reasons. Mieczyński was born and raised under the leaden decades of Polish history which remain implicitly elusive and alien to me. Obviously passionate for language, sometimes his imagery and constructions appear to clunk about, almost mechanical and obtuse. But then, with a light touch and a quick turn of words, a dash of deft, rolling phrasing bursts through like a refreshing breeze, as in "Freedom":
This is a golden (c)age, and I a parrot pampered into gray paresis
Sometimes skirting close to the edge, his prose threatens to grow too precious, as in "Does One Marry Madness?" or in "Half". And a suggestion of mommy issues seeps through in "Crab Apple Virgin Mothers", as it does again in "Pursuit of Happiness":
I notice Perry K, that little chubby kid my mother loves to fondle so – I think she thinks of me, back in the so-much-potential times. . . Gracefully he hops and skylarks, wings unclipped as yet.
It's alienation especially that comes through in this collection, or perhaps a sense that the surrounding landscape is iced over and sterile. In "Rainbow" we read:
Knee-deep in water, we huddled and wept while other families seeped on streets, shielding eyes, equally surprised to find they had neighbors and we them.
Mieczyński seems to be describing a society just awakening and emerging from a troubled sleep into a retreating deluge left by a glacial melt. One hopes that the process will proceed apace and his future work will feature more of his elegant phrasing with its attendant human warmth. (less)
A great deal of The Swan’s Coconut Cream Eyes reminds me of many of the lyrics from The Basement Tapes, which seem to be temporary, place-holding vers...moreA great deal of The Swan’s Coconut Cream Eyes reminds me of many of the lyrics from The Basement Tapes, which seem to be temporary, place-holding verses that were supposed to be replaced once the song writers thought of something more meaningful to say, only they never quite got around to it. I’m always thinking I’m picking up on threads of meaning running through many of these poems by S Falcon MacDowell, but they don’t always seem to quite crystallize into final significance, meaning, or relevance. This isn’t necessarily as disastrous as it might seem. After all, the legend of The Basement Tapes has not abated yet.
Is MacDowell simply pressing forward into the poetic form with all possible force and deliberation, damn the comprehension, stealing and stapling together, with bits of broken rhythm and rhyme, random subconscious images that briefly break water like flopping fish on the surface of a lake? Maybe.
Take the first few lines of “Just Like Tom Cruise’s Rorschach Rag”: “Bullethead finback sharkmen on the march / Spittin’ up blood in the market square. / Tim the leech leans on his cane, teaches / Children of unsuspecting pain in a public / Park. Approaching darkness, prickly lion’s / Torn verbatim out of night’s broken organs / In a methaneous, Jovian atmosphere. . .” Some of the staples: shark/market/park/darkness, leech/teaches, cane/pain/methaneous. And on it unravels. The groove is there. The meaning? Sometimes maybe, sometimes . . . although I note how sharks and leeches are aquatic creatures, and the prickly lion might be a reference to the constellation Leo, which might link up to the celestial Jovian atmosphere . . . something is going on, but do we have the tools to reconstruct MacDowell’s intent? Or was there intent?
MacDowell’s trademark imagery certainly riddles this collection like bullet holes, and for some readers that may be enough. “Steam-driven interstellar spacecraft / Push back the doors of purple clouds” (“Just One of Those Things”), say, or “I watched her weld it together and douse her eyes in cayenne sauce / Expediently accusing scapegoats before she found herself accused” (“Hung Up in a Holding Pattern”), or “I / Want to go to dinner with her, to / See the suns of her eyes and the / Constellations of her skin, and the / Comets of her hair” (“Temporary Separation”), or “he // longed to eat the moonflower / and be // sliced up into a million mindful pieces / and be // fed to the soldier ants” (“Moonflower”), or “it’s all broken out of this / credentialed reality that flows into our lungs like / liquefied lead & drowns out everything that we / know know know know know” (“Afternoon Showers”). For myself, the pieces which work best are those most closely resembling song lyrics with well-defined rhyme schemes. In these MacDowell most closely holds to a storyline or theme, although never in any conventional way. “All these gull voices ping pong facile platitudes / I tip my hat; discreetly past them all I creep / Someone drained the swamp of ambitious, selfless attitudes / And shellacked their minds just as soon as they fell asleep” (also from “Hung Up in a Holding Pattern”) is one example; another is: “We promised to be true no matter what sorrows befell / Before the days of glasnost and the gleaming towers fell / I remember well when it didn’t hurt so much to laugh / We foresaw no bitterly ironic epitaph / The national emblem featured an eagle, not a golden calf / Now you lean so heavily upon your creaking staff / Like you’re senile or just a little daft as twilight descends / Wondering at your isolation from all your abandoned friends” (“Abandoned Friends”).
MacDowell directs his attention squarely at the arts, or at literature and its critics, on occasion. In “Ideally Abstract Idyll, Really” he proclaims what appears to be his own philosophical stance: “art that fails to wreak havoc is sterile / they criminalized most artistic formulations / while you were out golfing,” and later in the same piece: “soon they’ll be incarcerating the most earnest poets for the most blatant failures of vision.” Something about this reminds me how, many years ago, Salman Rushdie proved that being a fiction author is the most dangerous job in the world. Or of Patti Smith: “all must not be art. some art we must disintegrate. / positive (anarchy must exist)” (“25th Floor” & “High on Rebellion”).
If MacDowell is really digging down deep into the psyche for this collection of poems, the one which best illustrates his quest for the bones of language must be “Hsstj~g,” which contains no recognizable words at all, although unmistakable patterns are present in letters which appear to presuppose a capacity for language and meaning. Is this some kind of code, or is it closer to nonsense? So far I’m unable to decipher it, but I haven’t given up hope. Yet.
Give me Whitman over Disney any day. ―"Green Under a Golden Sun"
Dreambuckles, Turnpigs & Interpretations of Style is a far-ranging, eclectic mix of...more Give me Whitman over Disney any day. ―"Green Under a Golden Sun"
Dreambuckles, Turnpigs & Interpretations of Style is a far-ranging, eclectic mix of poetry that explores, with fantastic – often phantasmagorical – language and imagery, such diverse arenas as linguistic and rhetorical gamesmanship, love, politics and scientific reductionism, not infrequently all at once.
Judging from this collection of poems, S Falcon MacDowell is a wry-humored paranoiac whose words can never be trusted to mean what they appear to say. The opening line of this collection, "Nothing is about anything" ("Magic in Real Time"), signals us that MacDowell's words are not to be read as signifying symbols but as independent signs themselves.
References to the poet's personal interest in astronomy and science deeply inform his language in a smart manner unfamiliar to most students of poetry. Esoteric scientific minutiae abounds as MacDowell dissects emotion-rich situations, unleashing a myriad of clinical details that secretly envelop everyday life, whether he's regaling us with love songs ("Supposed to Be"; "Sketches for a New Statue"), his trademark little allegorical folk tales ("Chemical Panels, Girder Strips, Nuts, Boltzmann"; "A Little Voyage"; "Letter from Between Enemy Lines"), or missives of hallucinatory excess ("Welcome to Jimmy Bob's") that jolt us out of our pedestrian lives and routines.
MacDowell is also preoccupied with exploding and reassembling the expected formal structures of poetry and language ("Unwasted Unfair Review"; "Crashing Stars & Nickel Plated Bullets"; "Dirty"; "Seaside Serenade, Ma (A Seaman-Seeded Sire)") in ways that jar us into unexpected insight into what poems are or may be. Words and concepts are digested and reconstituted in unexpected new configurations before our eyes. Very meta is he.
"Graveloct, he Struve them of Their Tittles" seems to be the central mini-epic of this collection, but I prefer "Gnosisworm (Soft Hits From the War Years)", which reiterates the thematic concerns of the soul-sapping "MACHINE", which to my reading truly lies at the core of this collection. Here the dehumanizing and autolytic mechanical process is thrust front and center, mindless capitalism devouring the foundation of a titanic, globe-striding country it once created.
While his laser-tight focus on technical and scientific detail sometimes threatens to leave me cold, MacDowell appears to be deploying this surgical precision in the attempt to transmit subliminal – or perhaps not so subliminal and subtle after all – messages to his fellow slumbering countrymen.
For the footnotes alone to "Much Owed to Keats' Ale in the Night, in G Major" (which perhaps comprise a kind of mangled tribute to "The Wasteland"), as well as the very last line of "Sketches of a New Statue", this book is well worth contemplating in earnest, I think. These poems never fail to peel back ordinary reality and thrust us into a more magical and more troubling world lying unsuspected just below the seemingly placid surfaces enshrouding our daily existence. (less)
I'm a white male author, which fact apparently has nothing to do with Aisha Sabatini Sloan's fine first book, The Fluency of Light. I deliberately bri...moreI'm a white male author, which fact apparently has nothing to do with Aisha Sabatini Sloan's fine first book, The Fluency of Light. I deliberately bring up the matter for two specific reasons, however.
One reason is that I spend a good deal of time thinking and writing about race relations, and the longer I dwell on such matters, the more deeply I fathom the complexities and intricacies involved. On one level it's all very foolish that phenotypic expression of genes controlling skin pigmentation, eye shape, hair structure, etc. – much of which serves as a convenient tagging system typifying deeper cultural biases and bigotries – could so preoccupy human interest and soak up time and energy; on another level the fact that phenotypic expression is effectively so critical to matters of justice and equality and the simplest instances of interpersonal interaction and decency demands that this colossal subject be considered with appropriate attention and sobriety.
The Fluency of Light examines these kinds of concerns indirectly through the lens of personal biography, its author smartly revealing the ubiquity of subtle, subconscious racial assumptions and their unfolding expressions in the real world as she globe-trotted through her youth. The stories she connects together are aggregates of small moments of minor drama, of casual exchanges of glances, of shared laughter and solitary tears: all human, all genetics-independent. Every chapter here contains its provocative elements and scenes, and now and again I would have to put the book down and think about it for a day or two before going on. Not a lot of books you can say that about these days. The last two chapters were especially compelling as the author began to edge toward a better understanding of her own biases and prejudices and to see herself also as a visual-weighted creature programmed by her own experiences and privilege to respond to phenotypic cues of ethnicity and cultural assumptions. The visceral reaction to a visit to South Africa she describes was disturbing and troubling, and she suggests she still doesn't know how to interpret it, and neither do we, the readers. Which is fine: that open-endedness is entirely appropriate to the subject material and true to her experience. The exploration must continue.
The second reason I mentioned my own background above is that I write about my ancestry. One experiences an automatic, kneejerk divide in assumptions upon hearing of either a white male or a black female (Aisha Sabatini Sloan is of African-American and Italian-American descent) writing about ancestry and genealogy. What does it tell you about your own culturally-imposed biases to reflect on why a white male author would not feel the same qualms about writing about ancestry that a black female author might? Would one author risk being pigeonholed while the other would not? The Fluency of Light must, of necessity, be a daring and revealing book not because of the stories it tells but simply because of who the author is. Unfair, but true enough. I suspect it's well that this is her first book, because she has most effectively laid her cards on the table and is now free to move on to any kind of writing that she likes. In writing this particular book she has, as I see it, carefully chronicled where she has come from, and has simultaneously liberated herself from those roots. She is free to invent the future.
When I first started this book I was reminded of the writings of Joan Didion, but beyond some stylistic similarities, the two authors have little in common; at least, that's my conclusion based on this single book. I saw one review that complained because of how it's cut up, jumping between far-ranging topics from one paragraph to the next. I had to laugh. The cut-up approach suits this book just fine. I must also add that the author here has a real knack for finding just the right turn of phrase. She has a fine voice and, more importantly, a fine mind. Very much do I look forward to whatever she writes next.
As TS Eliot's A HANDBOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS is unjustly lost in the solar glare of THE WASTELAND and THE LOVE SONG OF J ALFRED PRUFROCK, so too this pe...moreAs TS Eliot's A HANDBOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS is unjustly lost in the solar glare of THE WASTELAND and THE LOVE SONG OF J ALFRED PRUFROCK, so too this perfect gem by Lewis Carroll suffers unfairly because of the success of one or two other works of his which might be mentioned.
I first discovered SNARK when I was in college, and until this morning it had been a few decades since I'd last returned to this epic tale of seafaring and monster encounters which, in its own way, is similar to tales of brave Ulysses, say, or to Jason questing after the golden fleece. The poetic control is exquisite, and besides, the characters names all commence with the letter "B," with the possible (though unlikely) exception of one.
Knowledge of the lay of the Jabberwock is not essential to a full appreciation of SNARK, but that way lies additional insight and must be recommended; at a mere 28 lines, one really ought be able to squeeze it comfortably into one's life, besides which, it's questionable whether one can be said to have truly lived life to its full potential if one has not tripped at least one time through JABBERWOCKY.
What are you waiting for? This is a special treat! So gather up your thimbles and soap, and be off with you!
[If you're unfamiliar with the giant upside down carroty flora in superabundance in Baja, it's also rewarding to discover (by your own devices) the name of that strange plant, and how it came to be. This I leave as an exercise for the reader.]
Edna O'Brien's book about James Joyce in the Penguin Lives Series is short, sweet, and devastating in its sorrowfulness.
Having now racked up quite a f...moreEdna O'Brien's book about James Joyce in the Penguin Lives Series is short, sweet, and devastating in its sorrowfulness.
Having now racked up quite a few words in the fiction game myself, I can now relate to this book in a very different way than I would have a few years ago. This book will mean something quite different to another writer as opposed to a reading fan of James Joyce. The fact that O'Brien is herself a writer means this slender volume contains certain natural insights that another might not have had, although these insights, which constitute the magic of this little book, may be overlooked by those who have not also traveled a certain distance down this road.
O'Brien says: "Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create? I believe they do. It is a paradox that while wrestling with language to capture the human condition they become more callous, and cut off from the very human traits which they so glisteningly depict. There can be no outer responsibility, no interruptions, only the ongoing inner drone, rhythmic, insistent, struggling to make a living moment of both beauty and austerity. For Joyce, people were becoming more remote and would eventually be specters." [p 129] This passage necessarily means something different to another writer than it does to a reader. I do not necessarily agree with the "monster" characterization, but it's very true that the more one writes about life in the world, the more one by necessity withdraws from the world. Writing is a long and difficult and singularly isolated process that becomes indistinguishable from obsession. Writers who do not experience this cutting off from the external world are almost (almost?) always hacks.
Can we know Joyce? I'm unsure. We can read about the Joyce that others knew. We can read his letters, but anything a writer writes must always be suspected of being manipulative and self-serving. Many (most? all?) writers write in order to create a world which they absolutely control: to escape from the uncontrollable world where non-writers live their lives. Clearly O'Brien and Joyce appreciate(d) this, but can a non-writer who reads this book also appreciate it, or will he only see Joyce as an egomaniac, as an out-of-touch, crazy artist?
"Sometimes the absorption was such that he lost consciousness. Between two words he might insert two hundred more and a single page would extend to twenty or thirty pages." [p 140] Well can I relate. O'Brien is telling us of Joyce's word-sickness, if sickness it be: his drowning in the language he created. This is absolutely true about Joyce. He became so consumed with words themselves that all the physical world paled to insignificance. This is the portrait O'Brien paints of the man, and I find it to be spot-on.
Writers can grasp this as being literally true. I'm unsure readers can really comprehend that O'Brien is not speaking metaphorically.
This book, while covering material such as the spectacular, dazzling achievement that is ULYSSES, is devastatingly sad. Joyce's life was painful and cruel, and he was painful and cruel to others in his life. Are Joyce's faults morally forgivable when contrasted to his singular achievement? I don't have an answer, and I don't really think there is a final answer. I know that Joyce changed the world in a deep way, even if so many of us who realize that to be the case can only barely conceive of how he did so and what it means for the rest of us. This is not some kind of fan raving: Joyce altered our understanding of something utterly fundamental about what words and language are, and few of us have ever come remotely close to encompassing that startling, indeed shocking, upside-down vision. The implication is that we've barely begun to experiment with words and language in the vast universe of possibility toward which Joyce points us.
Obviously essential for every Joycean. Has its share of gems. Of course it's troubling when a writer tells you what his book means, or in this instanc...moreObviously essential for every Joycean. Has its share of gems. Of course it's troubling when a writer tells you what his book means, or in this instance assists another writer in telling you what his book means, episode by episode, page by page, symbol by symbol, incident by incident. Certainly emphasizes the depth of the Homeric references, which I now appreciate more than I did before. Easily readable (except when it sometimes slips into Greek, Latin, French, Italian, or German) and no doubt of most use for neophytes to Ulysses.(less)
An old friend of mine used to say he didn't like listening to jazz because it was too much like doing calculus problems. I know what he means. Jazz is...moreAn old friend of mine used to say he didn't like listening to jazz because it was too much like doing calculus problems. I know what he means. Jazz is at the musical intersection of math and linguistics. And yet despite, or because of, these problems, I've long been lured by jazz. I can tell it's a foreign language, or many foreign languages, but I can't make out the words. This book from my local public library seemed the best bet to start breaking me into the jazz world.
It is a good starter in some ways, and yet I must say that it's frustrating because in the first two-thirds it's trying to set into words what can only be taken in through the ears, and rather than providing specific illustrations, say specific illustrative tracks on albums, Johnny King spends most of his space on these pages listing the names of Jazz players or of bands: he's talking about sounds such as so-and-so's band could make in the late '50s. Unfortunately, this is the least helpful you can be if you're trying to explain jazz to a newbie.
In the last third of the book King takes ten jazz songs, not really greatest hits, and uses them finally to try to illustrate his points. That's nice, but I wish he'd done so in the first 88 pages as well. This book is not really what I'd hoped or expected it would be.
Occasionally helpful, but not really terribly useful for understanding and listening to jazz. I guess I'll try Ken Burns' 10-volume DVD collection and see if that works.
Sometimes we hear of a musician's musician: someone who is so busy following his own strange, unfamiliar muse that public acclaim eludes him. Someone...more Sometimes we hear of a musician's musician: someone who is so busy following his own strange, unfamiliar muse that public acclaim eludes him. Someone like, say, Thelonious Monk, who was long mocked because his music was incomprehensible to critics who, like the vast majority of the listening public, wanted music that sounded like music was supposed to sound. That followed the charted rules.
JG Ballard's 1962 novel THE DROWNED WORLD is neither great plotting nor great writing. It is very early work by an artist struggling to learn how to write and to find a voice. But reading it one is struck that Ballard may well be a writer's writer, because what he does insist on doing is following his own muse rather than adhering to the requirements of genre-writing. It is the struggle to find that inner voice that is most compelling about this short novel. Reading it, I was not particularly interested in the characters or the plot (although given our current global ecological crisis, this tale has, perhaps, never been so timely), but I found myself increasingly rooting for Ballard's inner-author. Don't give them what they want just because they want it, I kept thinking. Give them what you want just because you want it. That's what a great author can do.
At its best, this novel reminded me of APOCALYPSE NOW, which movie it predates by 17-odd years. Ballard is straining himself to peel back layers into "Heart of Darkness" territory, even if he's not yet the writer to take us there. But this novel remains a harbinger, a signal of artistry and integrity, of someone intent on revealing his own, and our own, 20th Century demons which continue to circle not far beneath the surface of our tranquilized collective consciousness.
Something else. Someone really ought to make this into a movie: with the right treatment, it could be much, much better than most of the special effects stuff out there today.
I've just picked up off the shelf my impossibly massive paperback copy of SOPHIE'S CHOICE, which I read in about 1988 and have been lugging around eve...moreI've just picked up off the shelf my impossibly massive paperback copy of SOPHIE'S CHOICE, which I read in about 1988 and have been lugging around ever since. Jeeze. I never saw the movie until out of the blue it occurred to me last week that the library probably had a DVD copy. They did. Finally I watched it. I see now on Wikipedia that Styron died in 2006. I didn't know that. I'm sorry to learn it today, because this was an important writer and I miss him.
So everyone knows about this book, or at least about the movie, and the movie was about as close to the book as I've ever seen Hollywood get - remarkable, that. I just wanted to make a few comments, and the first is about how daring, or foolhardy, it is for anyone to think about writing a novel involving the camps. You're just about guaranteed from the outset to fail, to fall far, far short, and to end up trivializing and cheapening what you and everyone else feels deeply about on some level. I'm unsure any storyteller can ever show us anything more significant than we can see in Spielberg's movie SCHINDLER'S LIST or see in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, or at other sites around the world. No writer could ever invent the horrors of the 20th Century. The psychological implications revealed during that era continue to be overwhelmingly depressing for we who were born human beings. In the final analysis in this novel we have two very complex persons with lives so damaged that the only elegant and proper solution to their suffering is death: felo-de-se as a fit and properly moral resolution.
By itself a straightforward telling of Sophie's story in Poland would probably have been disastrous, but Styron pulls it off by peeling back layers of the onion in flashback, alternating between present and past. Despite the horror of her final choice (better realized in the movie than in the book, I think), what we still care about most is the aftermath of Sophie's agony, the ongoing, inescapable psychological damage it has wrought, so it's not directly a story of the camps. A story of Brooklyn, not of Poland. Smart, that, or more probably lucky for Styron to have stumbled upon that approach. Very. Two books in one: the past with its consequences fingering on and on into the present.
The characters. Poor Stingo: unfortunate name. He does so little in this story, something like Nick in GATSBY, a necessary POV storyteller, but Stingo seems to me an improbable friend to Nathan and Sophie. I've no doubt GATSBY was on Styron's mind when he was writing this book, another outsider witness to a tragic love story. And Nathan is such a strange companion for Sophie; of course it was absolutely necessary that he be severely psychologically broken too, but his damage had to be concealed; had it been evident from the start there would have been no great love story. Again Styron arrived at a clever way of accomplishing that necessity, although I'm really rather skeptical that Stingo wouldn't have perceived early on that there was something really mentally wrong with his friend.
There is really something in this novel that works as if it were a subtle and dark geometric proof of Nietzsche that God is dead, and by no means in the pedestrian and familiar form of the Holocaust providing the final "proof." It is the fact that Sophie is fully capable of love - she can love, she is loved - and yet she chooses death as her solution, her only "viable" solution. Death in the end is the only acceptable expression of love of which she (like Nathan) is capable in a life that is far beyond not redemption but repair. The secret subtext of this novel is the crippling of the soul that life can sometimes inflict upon fragile human beings, and we're all fragile human beings: a crippling so severe that we cannot recover. This is not an American story. In America we do not believe it's impossible to recover from certain kinds of trauma. We're lightyears away from the end of ROMEO AND JULIETTE here. In SOPHIE'S CHOICE finally death is not preferable to other solutions, but life itself, even with moments of terrible, painful sweetness, is so intolerable that death is the only solution.
Now that I know about the depression that wracked Styron's own life this novel is cast in a new light. That may or may not be unfair: lots of people try always to separate the artist from the art. But at a minimum I think in this novel Styron, like Fitzgerald, is saying to America: some of your deepest, most profound assumptions are false.(less)