It has been quite a while since I read Marguerite Yourcenar’s most acclaimed work, 'Memoirs of Hadrian.' I remember it as a somber but richly multifacIt has been quite a while since I read Marguerite Yourcenar’s most acclaimed work, 'Memoirs of Hadrian.' I remember it as a somber but richly multifaceted, expansive novel with a reflective first-person narrator who lives in active dialogue with the world around him – both as a leader and as a thinker.
Everything about 'Coup De Grace' signals another reading experience. This novel is less than half the length of 'Hadrian,' and the front flap draws an explicit contrast between the two works. Even with that awareness, I was unprepared for one of the most wrenching, truly horrific endings I have ever experienced in literature.
There is something insubstantial about 'Coup De Grace.' It is not really about the Russian Civil War in the aftermath of World War I, or about war in general. It is not really about the strange triangle that exists among the narrator (a young commander) and a brother and sister. It is not really about love or unrequited love – even though all of these things are the threads from which it is woven. None of these things become themes, which gives the reader a slightly unsettled feeling most of the way through the novel, as the theme remains stubbornly unapparent.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t things to observe and admire. Yourcenar employs a wry, dry French mode of observation – a tone I don’t remember from 'Hadrian,' though it must be noted that 'Hadrian' was written over ten years later. Fleeting moments in the narrator’s life are universalized in asides about the human condition that don’t ring true as much as they demonstrate the narrator’s need to make sense of what is a rather inconsequential life. He wanders through the landscape of the Baltic, seemingly not heavily invested in the military actions, and reserving his strongest emotions – which, again, are not particularly intense – for his confused relationships with the brother he adores in the most subtle, homosexual way, and the sister who adores him in the least subtle, most masochistic way.
Yourcenar is particularly heavy-handed in placing sexist generalizations about women in the narrator’s mouth. In practically every passage about the sister, he speaks of the universal traits of women, their weaknesses, their inabilities to channel their own natures. Knowing all of this has been penned by a woman makes it tempting to interpret the lot through an ironic lens, but having read interviews with Yourcenar, I can’t convince myself she intended it that way. I find myself splitting my interpretation between locating a naivete in the narrator and that French mode of generalization in the author.
On the whole, the majority of the reading experience is one of intrigue, as Yourcenar offers scenes that string together in a plot, none of which offers real psychological footholds in the story. So, the reader waits, trusting that something is to come. And what comes amounts to a sucker punch, a final turn around a corner that reveals an aspect of humanity so bleak that on the third-to-last page I had to physically brace myself to finish reading. It becomes clear that this entire narrative has been an elaborate if incredibly subtle construction to give its final moment the maximum impact, even though in retrospect that moment had been foreshadowed so consistently that one struggles to understand how one didn’t see it coming much sooner.
Without giving that moment away, then, I can say that the politics of human relationships, and the ways those relationships take on lives of their own – lives that are as unique and potentially damaged as any actual person – is the ultimate theme of 'Coup De Grace.' Yourcenar’s hand is light and steady, her eye completely focused and unblinking, as she constructs this man and (despite his need to universalize) shades him so specifically that we find ourselves trapped with him in the appalling, unimaginable act that likely defines his entire existence.
I won’t pretend this novel is easy or comfortable, but those aren’t qualities I look for in literature anyway. Yourcenar deserves a much higher reputation as a modern master; reading her is truly transformative. ...more
Nathaniel Hawthorne seems to have undeserved cobwebs around his name – he suffers from the twenty-first century impression that he belongs on the mustNathaniel Hawthorne seems to have undeserved cobwebs around his name – he suffers from the twenty-first century impression that he belongs on the musty side of the classics shelf, which is distressing because THE SCARLET LETTER is a vital work with a pulse that betters many younger works. This novel remains essential – not just in American literature, but in the entire Western Canon. And Hester Prynne sits with Isabel Archer as the greatest women ever written by men (setting aside a raft of dramatic women written by Shakespeare).
The strangeness of THE SCARLET LETTER is readily apparent: The vast majority of the plot takes place before the book starts or after it ends, leaving little more than a few suspense points (Who is the father? Oh. What will they do about it? Sure.) and a few red herrings (Will they take Pearl away from Hester? No. Will Chillingsworth expose Dimmesdale? No.). Hawthorne is far more interested in crafting three incredibly nuanced characters and allowing them to fire each other in a tiny crucible barely large enough for them to fit.
Another strangeness is the almost complete sexlessness of these three characters, despite the fact that two of them are married to each other, and two of them committed adultery, an act revealed through pregnancy. The two men are practically sideshow attractions, physically – about as far removed from leading men as one can get. And while Hester possesses a vibrant sexuality, it is completely latent, breaking the surface in a single, transcendent scene in the forest when she temporarily casts off her scarlet letter and lets down her hair (literally). This repression cannot be chalked up to the Puritanical context because clearly there had been passion between Hester and Dimmesdale; there just doesn’t seem to be any evidence of it at present. The result is that for all its modernity, THE SCARLET LETTER also gives somewhat of the impression of a period piece.
Hester’s scarlet letter A, which she transforms into a finely wrought emblem of expert needlework on her chest, calls to mind the pink triangle of the Holocaust, which the gay rights movement (particularly ACT UP New York) reclaimed and transformed into an empowerment symbol in the eighties. The fact that Hester continues to wear her badge long after the mandate expires is not an act of masochism; rather, it must be seen as the most tangible evidence of her total subversion of the shame her community has attempted to quite literally project onto her. Dimmesdale’s shame – internal and far more destructive – is the ephemeral counterpoint, appearing in different ways to different people at different times on his bared chest.
Harold Bloom has called Hester the American Eve, which rings true, even if that leaves Chillingsworth as a somewhat stunted Satan and Dimmesdale as an even more flaccid Adam. But Hester is the focal point of an entire community’s fetish of sin and shame, even as she rejects all of that and reframes the pervading morality through sheer force of will and strength of persona. She deflects the Puritan epistemology so completely that one doesn’t stop to wonder how she is managing to do so. And Hawthorne is complicit in Hester’s apotheosis – he begins the book with a parade of lifeless men through a customs house, with barely a mention of anyone female, so that when Hester arrives on the scene, her femininity bursts through the page the way Oz lights up in Technicolor after black-and-white Kansas has been left behind.
Note must be made of Mistress Hibbins, a minor character who nonetheless is a critical counterpoint to Hester. This woman is an open and avowed witch, who nonetheless escapes the typical, lethal persecution suffered by women who present far less evidence to the public. As such, she epitomizes Hawthorne’s critique of Puritanical culture and the way sin has a tendency to flower in the very place it is most suppressed. She is id to Hester’s ego, lavishing her debauchery wherever she can, while Hester contains her single “sinful” choice so effectively that she doesn’t even find it necessary to expose either her lover or her husband. Mistress Hibbins is an essential character in THE SCARLET LETTER, providing a counterpoint of femininity that allows us to view Hester even more clearly.
And Pearl, the child of sin, is a prophet, as was so keenly observed by a friend recently. She frequently doesn’t understand the things she says, acting as a conduit for truths past, present, and future. Pearl is, essentially, all of humanity who spring from this Eve and her Adam, dancing back and forth between her willful nature and her naïve wisdom, and learning herself just in time to reap the grace her mother has earned for her, and which her father has sacrificed himself to earn for her. She is at once unique and universal, and we are drawn to her because there is room for all of us in her.
Hawthorne with Whitman may be the greatest American authors, the ones who fashioned the New World out of words and imbued it with an ethic and an aesthetic. THE SCARLET LETTER is an amazing experience that I am confident will continue to reveal itself to me in subsequent readings. ...more
I was familiar with Robert Penn Warren by name only when I picked up WORLD ENOUGH AND TIME. Reading the classics frequently involves setting aside whaI was familiar with Robert Penn Warren by name only when I picked up WORLD ENOUGH AND TIME. Reading the classics frequently involves setting aside whatever pop-cultural impressions of the work one has accumulated in order to go to it on its own terms, so there is an element of bliss in having no preconceived notions about a novel other than that it is most likely a worthy companion because it has stood the test of time. And WORLD is definitely a worthy companion.
Warren’s life nearly spans the twentieth century, and his is among the most storied of authorial trajectories in the United States, as decade after decade brought him success and prestige as a poet and a writer of prose. I am glad to have found him after spending time with two other writers of the South, Faulkner and John Barth (at least, the early Barth who wrote THE FLOATING OPERA) because to my mind, Warren exists on a continuum between them – not as aggressively modernist as Faulkner, not as subversive as Barth, but existing in brotherhood with both.
WORLD ENOUGH AND TIME is to a degree historical; it is contextualized by the nineteenth century conflict in Kentucky over whether land speculators should have been given debt relief for good-faith land investments that collapsed – a conflict that escalated to judicial and legislative standoffs and a good bit of bloodshed. Protagonist Jeremiah Beaumont is buffeted back and forth on the tides of this controversy, but in truth this novel is of two other stripes: It is a psychological romance and a criminal thriller.
Jeremiah’s tragic relationship with Rachel Jordan is the primary catalyst for the story, but the suspense arises from a crime – an actual crime that is committed almost perfectly, but with the extraordinary outcome of the perpetrator being charged for the crime – not based on evidence, though, but based on prejudice and artifice. The first half of the novel tangles up this knot, and the second half is not so much an untangling as a series of retanglings with no real relief for the reader, even at the very end. Because like the state of Kentucky in the eighteen hundreds, nothing and no one in this story is of one mind or one position, and circumstances and people continually pivot and shift, making a machine that walks forward now, backwards next, and sideways before long. In constructing such a story, Warren’s masterful control of a handful of complexly motivated characters and an intricate plot is staggering.
The title is certainly poetic and symbolic, but I couldn’t help noticing the way Warren universalized Jeremiah’s experience at almost every step. There are regular invocations of “the world” as both the perpetrator and the witness of all the injustices, all the transgressions Jeremiah experiences. This is a different sort of mythologizing: rather than position Jeremiah as an everyman, Warren continually positions him at the center of the snow globe that is the world, encouraging us to view his experience radiating out in every direction until it collides with the entirety of the human condition.
What sets this novel even further apart, though, is the lingering sensation at the end that the story has not really been Jeremiah’s at all, even though it has stuck with him throughout. The real center of this book is someone else entirely (no, it is not Rachel), and there is something extremely disorienting to find that after all that time, after all the events of such incredibly consequence in his life, after all the feats of will and audacity he undertakes, Jeremiah Beaumont’s life has been almost in its entirety the domain of someone else. He is given the chance to realize this before his story is over, but Warren makes sure that knowledge is no relief to Jeremiah or to us.
The scale of this novel, personally epic and epically personal, and the endurance it requires – both of writer and of reader – make WORLD ENOUGH AND TIME a truly great work of literature. I look forward to spending more time with Robert Penn Warren. ...more
I had the great good fortune of reading BELL WEATHER before its publication, and was blown away by the intricacy of the plot, the brilliant use of magI had the great good fortune of reading BELL WEATHER before its publication, and was blown away by the intricacy of the plot, the brilliant use of magic realism, and the incredible balance in this constellation of characters and desires. I've been a fan of Mahoney since his criminally underappreciated début, the contemporary drama FELLOW MORTALS. BELL WEATHER operates in another world entirely, with much grander ambitions and even richer rewards.
BELL WEATHER is set in an alternate world, a sort of funhouse-mirror reflection of Europe in the merchant age and America in its colonial days. While Mahoney could have used these places literally and crafted a more straightforward (though certainly action-packed) historical novel, he chooses instead to keep the reader always slightly off-balance through the introduction of what I will call magic naturalism - fascinatingly surreal animals, plants, and even weather patterns, all of which manage to hover right on the balance of credulity. The result is that the settings of the novel give the impression of being familiar and strange at the same time, and everything that happens on this stage has a heightened intensity, much like the colors on the cover of the book.
BELL WEATHER is the epic story of a woman whose struggle to determine her own life sets her down a path that spans years, an ocean, and too many adventures and reversals of fortune to be counted. The manner in which her life intertwines with her brother's is the most explicit link to FELLOW MORTALS - Mahoney seems to have both a fascination and a talent for crafting close relationships and their ever-shifting dynamics. These siblings have everything short of an actual love affair, even posing as husband and wife for an extended period of the story. (That is not a spoiler; the ruse in no way prevents our heroine from finding a number of romantic foils, including a great love who always seems to be just out of reach or moving in the wrong direction.) The brilliance of the novel is that every episode in this tale interlocks with every other one - seeds are sown on every stretch that flower in completely unanticipated ways as the story unfolds.
I can locate another similarity between BELL WEATHER and FELLOW MORTALS: They both possess a freshness - an anachronistic nature that sets them apart from much of the fiction that is being published in this time. It would be completely plausible that these books had been written forty or even sixty years ago, in the midst of great American literary eras. (I just finished Robert Penn Warren's WORLD ENOUGH AND TIME and found myself repeatedly making positive comparisons to BELL WEATHER for their structure and confident complexity.)
I fully believe BELL WEATHER will be one of the major publishing events of 2015 because of its originality and its mastery of storytelling. Mahoney continues to be a writer to watch....more
It’s a commonplace to marvel at the genius that came out of a single family called Brontë. The closest comparisons I can make – the Brownings and theIt’s a commonplace to marvel at the genius that came out of a single family called Brontë. The closest comparisons I can make – the Brownings and the Shelleys – are spouses, not siblings. Whatever was in the water at the Brontës did them well (before it killed most of them of tuberculosis…) and it is a thrill to wrestle with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre to this day.
I say ‘wrestle’ because the reading experiences are singular and at times treacherous. Emily’s 'Wuthering Heights' is a visit to a claustrophobic hell, one which made a palpable if uncomfortable impression on me. And Charlotte’s 'Jane Eyre' slides around its own landscape, continually reframing itself until it releases us, exhausted and somewhat beleaguered.
Divided into three acts, 'Jane Eyre' first tells the story of a Dickensian orphan who is tormented by her cousins, oppressed by her reluctant caretaker, and provoked into some rash acts of self-defense that result in her expulsion to an awful girl’s school, where she is battered with the bankrupt morality of the director. The second act tells the story of a Gothic ingénue who enters the home of a Byronic anti-hero, falls in love with him because he’s the first somewhat eligible man she’s ever gotten near, and unravels a web of mysteries surrounding the madwoman in the attic – but not before she has been betrayed virtually at the altar. The third act approaches Austen with its drawing-room tale of a family struggling with different visions of the world, though some of the earlier themes – bittersweet connections with cousins, bankrupt morality used as a bludgeon – recur before Jane returns to the anti-hero, now a much-diminished version of his former self.
At its heart, 'Jane Eyre' is a romance wrapped in a Gothic mystery, but it endures because of its complex psychological, moral/spiritual and even proto-feminist renderings, though a specific moral position never emerges. In fact, reading this novel is an experience in shifting emphases, even as Jane’s experiences parallel or mirror previous ones. Jane’s trajectory is one of independence both financial and personal, but Brontë employs more than a little deus ex machine to get her there. Jane is both highly principled and impulsive, both intelligent and naïve, religiously attuned but rather secular in execution. Unfortunately, her journey takes her to a version of herself that is ultimately less interesting, less compelling than she was at many earlier stages – an outcome shared by a number of other characters.
Jane’s triumph over Rochester, her Byronic love interest, rings hollow because when she claims him, he is a shell of his former self. In one of the novel’s most glaring imbalances, St. John, the secondary suitor who exists in contradiction to the first, enters the scene too late to be a sufficient counterweight to Rochester, and is almost schematic as a dialectic to Rochester. And Bronte’s primary weakness – character interaction – is revealed in Jane’s dialogues with these two men: stilted exchanges that make one long for Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s crackling repartee.
In fact, while it’s clear at every point that St. John is not a proper suitor for Jane, one wonders why her devotion to Rochester doesn’t lessen after his gross betrayal of her and her dramatic, nearly penniless flight from his house into the wilderness (a most un-Austen-like event). That question is in some way mitigated by the karmic reversals he experiences, but Jane’s inheritance makes her a truly independent woman, turning the tables on the ruined Rochester, but giving her the option to choose no one. The fact that she doesn’t makes it difficult to regard this novel in a strongly feminist light.
The most compelling aspect of 'Jane Eyre' is its most Gothic. Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic, strikes me as Jane’s shadow in the most Jungian sense. She is Jane’s opposite, descending from privilege to ruin, from security to madness, from stability to destruction. And while it is Jane who triumphs over Rochester, Bertha is the one who executes the physical triumph, burning down Rochester’s house and blinding him before she throws herself off the roof. I view Bertha as id to Jane’s ego, and I am curious to read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which would appear to take a similar view.
With all its problems and disconcerting shifts in theme, 'Jane Eyre' remains a thoroughly compelling read, and it is exciting to find in it the precursor to so many first-person, psychological novelists and novels that follow. One has a sense of Charlotte Bronte striking out into the same uncertain, high-risk terrain as her heroine, and forging her own literary sensibility in the process. ...more
I am genuinely ambivalent about Mary Shelley’s place in the literary canon. There are so many problems with her novel, so many obvious flaws, and yet,I am genuinely ambivalent about Mary Shelley’s place in the literary canon. There are so many problems with her novel, so many obvious flaws, and yet, clearly 'Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus' has claimed an unassailable place in our culture, and over and above that, Shelley succeeds in constructing an ethical landscape as tangible as all the ice-covered mountains and seas she describes.
Somehow I’ve failed to see the major films that claim this novel as their progenitor – both the classic Boris Karloff (a significant departure from the text) and the modern Robert DeNiro (apparently much more faithful) iterations. I can’t help but feel, though, that my unawareness made it a bit easier for me to go to the original work with relatively fresh eyes.
And the novel really is a very different creature from its pop cultural legacy. Much of the monstrous opportunities are sidestepped, as Shelley explicitly avoids the creation scene twice, and endows the “daemon” with size, speed, power, a great capacity to learn, and even eloquence, burdening him only with his hideous looks and his complicity about killing. When Frankenstein and his monster meet, they engage in nuanced conversations, and frequently it is the man, not the creature, who exhibits the more savage notions. Yes, the monster murders four people, but he wrestles with a deep existential crisis, makes nuanced psychological assessments of others, and delivers a moving speech of repentance and anguish at the deathbed of his creator. Not at all the bolt-necked, fire-fearing cretin we know today.
I do think some of the weaknesses of this novel can be attributed to a combination of the literary conventions of the time and to Mary Shelley’s odd relationship with writing – strongly encouraged by her husband, yet constrained by gender roles which seem to have prevented her from taking full ownership of the manuscript until the second edition was published five years later. But the writing is uneven – in many cases, the descriptions of landscape are more vivid than her handling of scenes of human interaction – the sweeping beauty of nature being the ultimate rebuttal to the ugliness of the life Frankenstein has dared to create. And logical problems abound. We are asked to believe that the monster tracked Frankenstein across Europe and back. And we are asked to believe that when Frankenstein went off to a remote island to create the requested female companion, he took along a bunch of body parts along with whatever considerable apparatus must have been required to put them together and bring them to life.
And yet, this novel flares to life in two aspects: First, in Frankenstein’s monologues, in which his flaws of character, reasoning, and ethics make it clear that we should regard his monster as nothing more than a physical expression of his own inherent evils. Second, in Frankenstein’s dialogues with his monster, which repeatedly pit nature against culture, quality of life against selflessness, noble ideals against human failings. Here we truly grasp the ethical dilemmas inherent in a Frankensteinian creation. Even if we have no expectation of ever doing what this madman did, we find ourselves regarding the very condition of living differently, walking around the statue called Valuing Human Life to see it from a new, unsettling angle.
On a few occasions while reading, I thought of William Peter Blatty’s 'The Exorcist' – a harrowing meditation on Christian faith that became an exceptional film, but one which largely stripped away the novel’s philosophical component. I’m not nominating Blatty to the canon, mind you, but my reaction to Frankenstein is along similar lines. It turns out to be a worthwhile read, but for reasons largely distinct from our pop-cultural notions of this myth. Whether that makes it canonical or not, I’m not quite sure. ...more
Giovanni Verga’s 'Little Novels of Sicily' sounded so charming, so downright quaint to this reader’s ear, that I was unprepared for the picaresquenessGiovanni Verga’s 'Little Novels of Sicily' sounded so charming, so downright quaint to this reader’s ear, that I was unprepared for the picaresqueness and even the morbidity of these stories. But they are deeply affecting, and strike an unusual balance between expressiveness and subtlety, which I suppose is only helped by having a translator like D.H. Lawrence.
My awareness of this novel depends on the particular judgment of Harold Bloom, who places 'Little Novels' on his canonical list, but leaves off 'I Malvoglio,' which, apparently, is Verga’s better-known work. But I have discovered so many obscure treasures through Bloom that I relish opportunities like this to broaden my literary spectrum. It’s like setting aside all the Chardonnays and Pinots to taste a Frappato.
The little novels are more properly a series of twelve linked stories spanning 225 pages in total. They immerse the reader in the bleak life of nineteenth-century Sicily, where poor growing years, the tyranny of the landed gentry, and the godlessness of the clergy have boxed the peasant class into abject poverty and not-so-quiet desperation. Verga offers nearly every perspective on this microcosm, even that of a poor donkey, whose value steps down each time it is resold and its new owner abuses it further.
The stories are bleak, with few if any instances of upward mobility, even among the wealthy. The entire system is spinning on entropy and malfeasance until it reaches such a nadir that the peasantry engage in bloody revolt – an actual historic occurrence in Siciliy in 1860. Even in the last story, in which the characters symbolically escape through emigration, they trade physical deprivation for soulless, empty lives, as though they are psychically trapped in codependence with their homeland. Verga leaves us with, “Farewell, sweet melancholy of sunset, silent shadows and wide, lonely horizons of our known country,” and he is speaking as much of the entire collection of stories as he is of the experience of the enervated lovers at the end.
In addition to the picaresqueness of this writing, what will stay with me is the sketch-like quality of Verga’s style, in which short stories veer from one character to another, even one plot to another before they end, giving the reader an experience that is less linear and more impressionistic. The centerpiece of Little Novels is “Black Bread,” the longest story by far, at fifty-four pages. It begins with one unhappy couple, shifts around to a shepherd and then another unhappy couple, and finishes with a near-apocalyptic frenzy of clanging bells, agitated animals, and devilish symbolism. Verga tells this story as an older person might recount memories of their youth, flitting from person to person, theme to theme, as the fragments of history pass before their eyes, while the listener holds on to various threads, waiting for a connection that may never come.
The result is a reading experience that is disarming and transporting, but in a manner unlike many others. For every finely-etched moment of dark despair, there is a passing distraction that fills in the quotidian Siciliy, allowing us to feel these lives more fully, even as we long to escape them. Verga’s message at the end, however, seems to be that people are inexorably tied to their culture, their homeland, and their collective destiny, for better or for worse, and for the Sicilians, that has been a rough row to cultivate. ...more
I’ve seen Giuseppe Ungaretti regularly on lists of canonical poets of the modern era, but I didn’t know what to expect from him. I have a passing inteI’ve seen Giuseppe Ungaretti regularly on lists of canonical poets of the modern era, but I didn’t know what to expect from him. I have a passing interest in the hermetic tradition, so my curiosity was piqued when the introductory essay in the volume of his selected works identified him as a founder of the hermetic school in Italy, and I did a little companion research as I read the poetry. Among the hermetic poets, Salvatore Quasimodo is the only one I had previously encountered (and just last year), though I definitely owe time to Montale and Vittorini one of these days. In some ways aligned with the symbolists in France, hermetic poetry is a fascinating and thoroughly modern genre.
The parallel research came to feel more and more helpful as I read Ungaretti because a significant portion of his work – largely indicative of the rest of the hermetic school – is unapologetically cryptic and even solipsistic. As I did with Quasimodo, I ask whether such a poetry (or a literature, for that matter) deserves credence if it is necessarily inaccessible, but the academic position is that Ungaretti and his colleagues achieve a particular density of language in which meaning is secondary to expression. That explanation may seem precious on its face, but it does have merit, especially when one considers Ungaretti’s works as an inflected whole rather than concentrating too hard on individual poems.
It is useful to know, for example, that as the fascists came to power in Italy after World War I, words and images became increasingly politicized, and writers and artists found their works scrutinized for their implicit support for or rejection of the dominant political ideas instead of their aesthetic achievement. Ungaretti’s reaction to this oppressive, groupthinking climate was twofold: he embraced a style that was intentionally oblique and opaque to avoid accusations from the fascists, and he reached for language that encouraged a purely aesthetic appreciation, developing structural and technical forms that encouraged the reader to focus on the construction of words – their phonics, their rhythms, their forms – and place less emphasis on their meaning.
The result in many cases – for Ungaretti and for the other other hermetic poets – is poetry that exists on an enchanted surface, leaving a quixotic void in the middle depths of meaning and narrative, but reaching new depths of epistemology and metaphysics. But that doesn’t mean the reading experience isn’t one of alienation and bewilderment. Concrete and abstract images collide and incomplete analogies pile up. Occasionally lovely turns of phrase are taken up and quickly abandoned. In many cases the poem is over as soon as it begins, lasting only three or four lines, and even in that compressed space, frequently the impression is of listening to the murmurs of a dreaming person.
With many translated reading experiences I have not been too troubled by the compromised experience of not reading in the original language. I admire the work of the translator, and feel as though I have received a significant impression of the original work, even if that impression is compromised. With Ungaretti, though, I’m not so sure, and I while admire Andrew Frisardi for his efforts, this may be a poetry that is largely resistant to translation. I’m sure the meanings of each word and phrase have been faithfully rendered, but keep in mind that literal meaning is not Ungaretti’s primary objective in most cases. I can look across the book to the Italian en face and easily see that the order of phrases, the way they are broken between lines, and the rhythm and confluence of their letters and sounds, are significantly changed when they arrive in English. I can’t help but feel as though much of Ungaretti’s achievement is sequestered in his native tongue.
There are lovely moments that linger and resonate, though. Consider “Outcry” from 1928:
Evening having arrived, I rested on the monotonous grass And savored That perpetual desire, Dark and flying outcry, Which the light when it dies holds back.
Or the even briefer “Starry Silence” from 1932:
And the trees and the night Don’t move anymore Except from nests.
There is a certain mysticism in these moments that succeeds even in translation. I do feel, though, that the major impression Ungaretti has made on me has not been on the level of individual poems. His selected works as a unity give an impression of a man who has taken the substance of his life – war, an oppressive regime, the formative experience of youthful years in Paris – and used them as a point of departure, a willful but organic loosening of the boundaries of language, in hopes of achieving a loosening of the boundaries of thought. There is apparent a serious delight in rolling words around on the tongue, of shaping phrases for their own sake, and of using language to point in several directions at once without following any of them.
To read Ungaretti, then is to embrace disorientation, trusting that something interesting will follow in its wake. And frequently, something does. ...more
I am somewhat ashamed that I went as long as I did without reading 'Don Quixote'; it was a huge blind spot in my literary education. I’m very happy toI am somewhat ashamed that I went as long as I did without reading 'Don Quixote'; it was a huge blind spot in my literary education. I’m very happy to have corrected that, and I join the legions of astonished readers (and writers) who hold this book in the highest esteem. I have had few reading experiences as strange, as wondrous, and as compelling as this novel.
The book has seeped into our cultural consciousness to the point that we know the story even without having read it. Don Quixote has a series of picaresque adventures, most of which are characterized by the knight making fundamental misinterpretations of banal situations, asserting himself with aggressive acts for which he is not sufficiently strong or skilled, failing comically, and reinterpreting the entire encounter in a manner that salvages his pride and conviction. The well-known episode in which he attempts to spar with a cluster of windmills he believes are giants is an early and key example of these adventures.
Part Two is not as farcical as the first, and it is here that the already exemplary literary qualities of Part One are elevated to even stranger and more provocative degrees. On several occasions people go to great lengths to indulge Don Quixote’s madness, devising elaborate staged quests for him that at times require the participation of entire villages, in part to have fun at his expense, but in part, too, to marvel at the purity and the depth of his convictions.
Talk about something being greater than the sum of its parts. Don Quixote is a ludicrously unbelievable man. His condition of sanity tempered by a single strain of insanity is difficult to understand. Sancho Panza’s loyalty to him strains credulity. The fact that Don Quixote survives all his dangerous adventures (and then ironically dies of natural causes in his bed at home) doesn’t ring true. It’s tough to pinpoint the motivations of the people who toy with the Knight because in most cases their fascination is stronger than their mischief.
And yet… How to describe the singular impression this novel makes, at once farcically comedic and existentially tragic, both a book of its time and a book of the world for all time? For everything can be found here – the critics who call 'Don Quixote' the progenitor of modern literature are not exaggerating – everything we know about storytelling, about the importance of writing characters with inner lives, about the way plots and ideas dance in close hold through great literature, is here.
What astounds me is that Cervantes not only engendered all of these things with this greatest of works at the end of a life littered with other novels, plays, and poems of not nearly as estimable quality – he established them so brilliantly that four hundred years later, few, if any, works, have approached that level of artistry. What happened at the turn of the seventeenth century, for Cervantes to write 'Don Quixote' at the same time Shakespeare was writing Hamlet and Lear up in England? Everything can be traced back to these two men.
Written in two parts published a decade apart, 'Don Quixote' even ventures into postmodern territory, as characters in the second half suddenly have read part one, even though no time has elapsed. With its translation-of-a-translation convention and its comments both on itself and even on an unauthorized sequel written by another author, the novel practically deconstructs in front of you.
Nonetheless, the themes of 'Don Quixote' are deep and abiding – which is the real reason this book remains vital. The relationship between seeing and perceiving, between knowing and believing, between truth and interpretation, is even more relevant for us today. At various times I thought about examples of what passes as public discourse now, in which facts and objectivity are trumped by suspicion and emotion.
The fundamental message I take from this novel, though is this: We all make decisions to believe in things, frequently without proof. Life requires that. Our beliefs may be unpopular or even crazy, and perhaps a healthy amount of perspective is required to balance our leaps of faith. But if we waver in our belief, if we are inconsistent in our pursuit of the goals we set for ourselves, we might as well never have believed in the first place. Don Quixote’s heroic strength is in his consistency, and it is instructive that the moment he stops believing, he dies.
The reading experience of 'Don Quixote' is singular. One has the constant sense of how strange, how unreal Don Quixote and his story are, and yet, he emerges as such a complete character – a complete person, even – that his story explores the heights of comedy and the depths of tragedy at virtually the same time. Before Cervantes, novels stayed on the surface, with characters who achieve things but do not develop in other than material ways. 'Don Quixote' introduces characters with psychological interiors so rich, so complex, and so dynamic, that their actions take on a new world of resonance because those actions are grounded in reflective human experience. It is truly amazing that Cervantes did this so effectively that four centuries later, I can join the chorus who declare it one of the best novels ever written. ...more
I read 'Absalom, Absalom!' a few decades ago, but I hadn’t retained as strong an impression of it as 'The Sound and the Fury' or 'As I Lay Dying.' So,I read 'Absalom, Absalom!' a few decades ago, but I hadn’t retained as strong an impression of it as 'The Sound and the Fury' or 'As I Lay Dying.' So, it was good to revisit it, and now I wonder what distractions I had in my life during that first reading, to not have been as astonished by it as I was this time. In truth, 'Absalom!' is probably Faulkner’s highest achievement, and it well deserves its place at the top of the American canon.
I understood Faulkner as a unique novelist among the Americans – one who shows his European influences more strongly than most of his peers in the twentieth century. One who is equally a master of form as well as storytelling. One who is unafraid of oblique approaches, of narratives that resist easy access. And he didn’t seem to think twice about wading directly into some of the darkest recesses of the human – and the American – psyche.
'Absalom!' is a family tragedy with several men (directly related or not) vying for the central role, and an equal number of women resenting their confinement to supporting positions. It is a cycle of men fathering children and then abandoning them because of their mixed race – a cycle repeated at least three times, with worse and worse results as generations of siblings and half-siblings jostle for whatever dwindling prizes are left.
The story is told almost as though from a merry-go-round: We hear fragments of the plot over and over again, but notice new details, new shading, slightly different interpretations each time they go by. The American South at the brink of the Civil War is shown as a many-layered collage of events and their subsequent narratives, to the point that truth is only available if one accepts an impressionistic account, an inflected whole. Even though the Civil War looms over a substantial component of the plot, that history and those facts are almost completely absent. Instead, we are given the portrait of a distorted family whose experiences add up to a kind of psychic portrait of the South at that time.
Faulkner’s perspective seems to be primarily ironic. The South, as epitomized by Thomas Sutpen and all those in his orbit, is a portrait in willful self-determination that comes to rest on an untenable foundation, and is finally undone by its own inability to adhere to the strictures it imposed upon itself. For the South as a culture, that portrait is of communities of poor farmers who became rich through agriculture and the exploitation of slavery, only to find themselves caught in the teeth of its own moral codes when they couldn’t resist fathering children with slave women. For Thomas Sutpen as the tragic figurehead, that portrait is of a man of no pedigree who virtually wills a plantation into existence, but watches as each of his efforts to establish himself with a family and an heir fall further from his ideal through miscegenation, deception, and sabotage.
The Biblical reference in the title is not, in fact, the strongest literary allusion. There is absolutely a Greek tragic tone to this story. The faults of the father are borne out again and again through his children, with brother killing brother, brother nearly marrying sister, and cast-off bastards wreaking destruction to both lives and property. The character of Clytie (for Clytemnestra) lives up to her name both in her heritage and in her decisive act of destruction. Faulkner also has a keen sense of the Shakespearean tone of his story, particularly both Henry and Charles’s resonance with Hamlet, a son whose parents are a thicket from which he struggles to untangle himself.
But the primary influence on Faulkner definitely seems to have been Joyce. The stream-of-consciousness prose, in which sentences sprawl for hundreds of words at a time, and the layering, in which characters take turns telling the story to each other, so that at times three or even four speakers are sharing the narrative at various removes from the action, are strongly reminiscent of 'Ulysses,' published fourteen years earlier. In particular, the closing sections, almost a monologue by Shreve, call to mind Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, right down to the repetitive final answer to the novel’s fundamental question.
Faulkner’s brilliance is in his absoluteness. At every level of the idea, at every level of the craft, he is undisputable to the point of sublimity. Few novels achieve such a degree of synergy, in which virtually every detail, every choice adds up to a sum so much greater than its parts. ...more
Edgar Allan Poe lurks in the American pop cultural conscience: ravens, pits and pendulums, tell-tale hearts… To paint with a broad brush, most of us eEdgar Allan Poe lurks in the American pop cultural conscience: ravens, pits and pendulums, tell-tale hearts… To paint with a broad brush, most of us engage with him through a handful of visceral images (women murdered inside a locked room, offenders walled up in crypts) rather than with any kind of literary rigor. Obviously this potency has greatly helped Poe maintain the level of awareness he enjoys almost two centuries later. A critical assessment is necessarily quite a different undertaking, though, and one that occasionally must compensate for the pop-cultural distortion.
The two handfuls of Poe’s stories commonly known as the Tales of Mystery and Imagination can be a bit difficult to pin down, since various collections with various tables of contents have been issued under this title. Regardless, they encourage an understanding of Poe as an author of the macabre, carrying the Romantic tradition of the gothic tale forward into a more scientifically-motivated framework, where the horrors of real-life circumstances such as premature burial and seemingly unsolvable murders resonate more strongly than ghosts and monsters.
As it turns out, Poe’s concerns were broader, though psychological horror and detective stories both fit under the umbrella. He returned to a handful of themes over and over again, all adding up to an anxious obsession with the gray area between life and death, perception and illusion, consciousness and the darkness beyond it. His detective stories are less about who-did-it than they are about the methodology that led to the revelation – and we must keep in mind that in Poe’s time, such skills as cryptography and forensics were mysterious enough that those who applied them successfully were held in almost supernatural regard.
His tales of the macabre – in which people are buried alive, struggle on the edge of mortal peril, are mistakenly thought to be dead, or are somehow capable of exerting influence from beyond the grave – frequently hinge on the bumpy transition between life and death. His tales of love, albeit dark, involve pale women who die of consumption but return in some manner from the beyond.
Add to those common themes from Poe’s lesser-known tales: extended discussions of the conditions of the afterlife. Thought experiments on a futurism involving balloon travel and medical procedures which radically alter the body. And throughout, narrators of increasingly questionable mental health. What emerges is a body of work by an author who exhibits what might be called millennial anxiety – even though Poe wrote 150 years before the millennium.
In his book, 'Omens of Millennium,' Harold Bloom describes an American gnosis (neither Christian nor Jewish) that engenders an increasing cultural anxiety as the turn of the twenty-first century approached. Our culture became increasingly concerned with such things as angels, prophetic dreams, extra-sensory perception, end-times, and messianic expectations. Everything from the touchy-feeliest new age pabulum to quasi-scientific experiments pointed to a deeply felt need to pull aside the veil that separated the rational world from the irrational otherworld. This anxiety grew over time, with early reverberations in William Blake, then Freud and Jung, and more recently in such works as Tony Kushner’s 'Angels in America.'
A contemporary of Blake, Poe seems to have felt this pre-millennium anxiety just as acutely, and I would argue that this anxiety, and the themes and images it engenders in Poe’s writing – particularly his best-known writing – is what gives it its enduring potency.
Because, alas, Poe’s writing wouldn’t be enough to endure on its own merits. Few of even his best stories are well-written. Most suffer from structural flaws and poor pacing along with awkward prose and emphasis on unimportant details at the expense of meaningful ones. It is a testament to the power of Poe’s ideas that they are as impactful as they are despite the limitations of his craft.
Poe’s lesser-known works only reinforce this assessment. Many of them give the impression of experiments or sketches, in some cases laying out only a conflict or only a resolution, but not an entire story. A few are nothing but long scenic sketches with no plot at all. There are flashes of brilliance, though: “The Man That Was Used Up” uses admirable control as it pitches up to its final reveal. And “The Man of the Crowd” anticipates existentialism in its almost mystical imagery and its anti-plot.
I have largely avoided discussing Poe’s poetry because as a whole, it offers less to admire. His slavish devotion to structure and rhyme scheme results in word puzzles that straightjacket his subjects and leave little room for an animating spirit. The notable exception is “A Dream Within a Dream,” which may be the most cogent expression of Poe’s pre-millennial anxiety as it achieves a more comfortable relationship with its structure and anticipates T.S. Eliot in voice and imagery.
Reading Poe – and it is a worthwhile undertaking, particularly if the collected prose (roughly seventy-five stories) is considered rather than the greatest hits alone – is at times viscerally affecting, at times bewildering, at times frustrating, and at unexpected times greater than the sum of its parts. Read him through a wide-angle lens to find him grasping at the ineffable in a way that is both very much of his time and very much beyond it. ...more
I had read four of Jane Austen’s six novels at various times in the past, but when I got an invitation two months in advance to participate in a panelI had read four of Jane Austen’s six novels at various times in the past, but when I got an invitation two months in advance to participate in a panel discussion of this author, I decided to take the opportunity to read all six novels in order. This yielded a fresh and increased appreciation for Austen as one of the rightful heirs to Shakespeare for her rich characterization and penetrating insight.
Austen sits at the turning point between two literary ages – the aristocratic, which dealt with heroes and classic themes, and the democratic, which began to consider ordinary people and their psychological selves. Austen well understood the narrow constraints of the upper class world about which she wrote, but increasingly concerned herself with the actualization of her heroes – a collection of women who perceive their world and the people around them keenly enough to be aware of their ironies.
Austen did not write her novels one at a time in the order they were published, so it is difficult to assess her work chronologically. ‘Sense and Sensibility’ leads easily into the superior ‘Pride and Prejudice’. ‘Mansfield Park’ is equally rich, though it troubles some readers for its tacit admission that the wealth of the family is derived from the slave trade. ‘Emma’ shows Austen loosening up, and if ‘Northanger Abbey’ is a bit of a faux-gothic misstep, ‘Persuasion’ shows the greatest subtlety and incredible control. The shortest of her novels, ‘Persuasion’ is ultimately my favorite, though Pride, Mansfield, and Emma are also indisputable.
Literary critic Harold Bloom speaks of Austen as achieving a near-Shakespearean level of characterization, causing even minor characters to bloom on the page with complexity and depth. Her central characters are notable for their heightened perception of the world around them, making them rightful heirs to Rosalind from “As You Like It” – characters so aware, they at times seem to have noticed they are in a book or a play. And when these women encounter men of nearly equal potency – as Elizabeth Bennett does with Mr. Darcy in Pride, and as Anne Elliot does with Captain Wentworth – the frisson of psyches pushing and pulling is palpable and fully human.
For these women, there is one defining transaction to be made in their lives, and that is their marriage. For Austen, love and marriage are business, and she shows us over and over in each novel how that choice reframes a woman’s life, with consequences she will have to accept for as long as she and her husband are alive, and even longer. The reader has a sense of a narrow window through which these women must attempt to jump: Choose a husband too early and risk settling for less than you deserve; wait too long and risk having no one left for whom to settle. Elizabeth Bennett (in Pride) and Anne Elliot (in Persuasion) both struggle with the fear that they have blown their opportunity and are fated for tragic endings. Austen doesn’t spend time deliberating what these women might do if they fail, but the true suspense comes from the intricacies of the present, not the future.
It’s important to note, though, that for Austen love takes second place to affection – a much rarer, much more precious commodity, and the real grand prize in these stories. With loveless or merely convenient marriages scattered about among secondary characters, what keeps us turning the page is the possibility of a marriage enlivened by affection. This suspense transcends the novel of manners, the ironic comedy, and shows Austen to be greater than her form, as we breathe and yearn with these women, and shift against their social constraints.
One note for readers of this Modern Library edition (I believe from 1978): There are a shocking number of typographical errors in this imprint, and one instance of wrongly ordered pages. Be prepared to read pages 1182, 1185, 1184, 1183, and then 1186 if you are going to make sense of ‘Northanger Abbey.’...more
I had only read a couple of HG Wells’s science fiction works in condensed versions as a child, but it is impossible to escape a certain awareness of aI had only read a couple of HG Wells’s science fiction works in condensed versions as a child, but it is impossible to escape a certain awareness of at least four of them, as woven as they are into the fabric of our popular culture. 'The Time Machine,' 'The Island of Doctor Moreau,' 'The Invisible Man,' 'The War of the Worlds' – even if you haven’t read these novellas, you very likely know their essences. A big reason for this is the purity of their concepts. As a pioneer in speculative fiction, Wells homed in on pure premises (“What if we could travel through time?” “What if the distinction between humans and animals was willfully blurred?” “What if we could turn invisible?” “What if an alien race arrived, who were too powerful to be withstood?”), and like Gogol’s overcoat, they – along with the work of Jules Verne and perhaps Hugo Gernsback – seeded an entire new genre in fiction.
When I came across a beautiful volume of Wells’s collected science fiction (there are three additional titles that are not as well known), it was a great opportunity to properly acquaint myself with Wells. I am particularly glad I did so in this manner, because Wells’s science fiction novels make an even stronger impression when taken collectively and in chronological order. The evolution of his ideas, his skill, and his capacity as a writer add another layer to the enjoyment of any of the stories in isolation.
'The Time Machine' is a striking debut, rough around the edges but profoundly strange. The “science” of the machine is dispensed with rather quickly, and the impression is that Wells’s true intent was to speculate on the evolution (or devolution, as it may be) of humans as organisms and as a society. He creates a secular, Darwinian, and even Marxist future in which homo sapien has bifurcated into a surface species and a subterranean one, whose relationship turns out to be not that complicated. The lingering influence of the detritus of earlier civilization has resulted in strange, talismanic echoes that shape the behavior of the surface people as they fail to realize its pointlessness. Most interesting, though, is Wells’s seeming discomfort with gender – Weena, a member of the surface people, is female but interacts more on the level of a child and even a pet, making her an extremely uncomfortable romantic foil for the narrator.
'The Island of Doctor Moreau' is in many ways a recapitulation of The Time Machine. This time it is a destination in geography rather than time that affords Wells his speculative opportunity, but in both cases, a male narrator winds up in an isolated place and encounters a provocative alternative to the norms of his own world. Wells takes even stronger positions on the fragility of civilization, stressing how easily it can erode at any time. Authority may derive from something real, but it can just as easily be arbitrary and insubstantial. There is an echo here of Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein (in Moreau) and an interesting prefiguring of Renfield (in Montgomery) in Bram Stoker’s 'Dracula,' published the following year. To the modern reader, the narrator’s relative comfort with animal vivisection may be the most disturbing element, though apparently the novel served as a catalyst for anti-vivisectionist sentiment in the years after its publication.
'The Invisible Man' is the first of Wells’s works to attain a literary quality, its conceptual ideas rounded out with psychological depth and thematic nuance. There are passing references to both The Time Machine (an aside about the fourth dimension) and Doctor Moreau (an aside about vivisection), and one is practically asked to take a structuralist view of the way these stories represent an evolution. The greater impact of this third story may also derive from its more familiar setting – the invisible man is the only anomaly. As such, Griffin’s complete miscalculation (in developing a power with a serious downside), and the impotent rage and borderline mental instability it engenders in him makes the lasting impression.
By The War of the Worlds, one senses Wells increasing confidence. He increases his scope dramatically, describing a conflict that ranges over a larger landscape with more characters and greater detail. Perhaps by coincidence, the “science” in this fiction is much less compelling than in the previous three stories. Both the technology and the biology of the Martians is rather absurd, but again, that’s not really Wells’s primary focus. Most interesting is the soldier encountered by the narrator late in the conflict, who has envisioned the new world order once the human race has capitulated and is subservient to the Martians. He predicts a reasonably comfortable existence within certain boundaries, at the same time that he lapses into the baser instincts that will render him useless to the invaders. This secondary character might be the most complex of Wells’s constructions thus far.
'The First Men in the Moon' feels like the first real misstep for Wells. It is very much a diluted amalgam of previous stories (the alien race of 'Time Machine,' the futile rage brought on by useless power in the 'Invisible Man,' and the conflict between invader/invaded from 'War of the Worlds') and wades back into a rather heavy-handed treatment of how civilization might evolve along different lines – those lines amounting to an extreme socialism in which the moon people might as well be worker bees in a hive. This book also suffers from an ungainly structure, especially once the rather engrossing first eighty percent is revealed to be the set-up for the much flatter socialist fantasy at the end.
'The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth' returns Wells to his footing and carries him forward. It is as speculative as the previous works, but must subtler, and not nearly as political, despite its political subplot. There are interesting new elements to Wells’s writing here: a light comedic humor particularly at the beginning, a much more ambiguous ending, and most interestingly, the use of allegory. Ultimately Food of the Gods is about the classic generation gap, in which parents work so their children will have more than they did, and then are tempted to resent their children when they see them go further, accomplish more, and threaten the old ways simply by perceiving alternatives.
'In the Days of the Comet,' published eleven years after 'The Time Machine,' is a full order of magnitude greater than that first work. It is the most literary, and on the whole the most subtle of the novels, even as the undercurrent of Wells’s politics finally surfaces completely. It begins with his most assured, most compelling rendering of a character – Willie Leadford, the angry young man who is on his downward spiral as the comet approaches. And Wells has also achieved a new level of control over his plot, finding for the very first time romantic notes in what has heretofore been a notably sexless and un-erotic canon. The hybrid utopia/communism brought about by the comet’s changes to the Earth’s atmosphere is a touch naïve, but Wells has woven his story so skillfully that for the first time the politics feel truly organic, rather than an indulgence. Most interesting might be his take on the new, post-Change interpersonal dynamics, which include polyamory.
A month spent with Wells provides a stimulating history lesson on speculative fiction, and it’s easy to see why so many speculative writers find him a tonic in which to distill their ideas. It is easy to admire the purity of his premises, and instructive to realize that the heart of his stories is invariably the human experience, not the science fiction....more
It’s been quite a while since I read Vanity Fair, Thackeray’s best-known novel, but I was aware that Thackeray devotees generally hold Henry Esmond inIt’s been quite a while since I read Vanity Fair, Thackeray’s best-known novel, but I was aware that Thackeray devotees generally hold Henry Esmond in higher esteem. It is a classically-structured novel, one which follows a central character through an extended portion of his or her life, illustrating a moment in history or society by refracting it through the prism of that character.
Oddly, though, much of Henry Esmond’s life seems to transpire in the spaces left among the others around him. An orphan of sorts, tenuously attached to a wealthy family but completely dependent upon their benevolence, he spends his childhood as a glorified servant, and receives his education – both academic and political – from a local priest who also happens to be one of the most low-key international spies I’ve ever encountered.
Henry’s political education is as formative as his academics, since he lives in England during the latter extent of the English Restoration, when one’s religious affiliation (Protestant or Catholic) was in essence a declaration of allegiance to one side or another, and when noble families jockeyed nervously to curry favor but keep their options open in case power shifted. He is a thoughtful, somewhat morose boy, who finds his purpose in an odd but devotional relationship to his mistress, Lady Castlewood, particularly after her husband dies.
Younger than Lady Castlewood but older than her daughter Beatrix and son Frank, Henry spends his youth with only vague ideas about his prospects. He initially steers toward the clergy, but sets his aspirations higher when his “cousin” Beatrix spurns his advances. Distinguishing himself in a number of campaigns (which allows Thackeray to weave in a good bit of the armed conflicts between the English and French at the turn of the eighteenth century), Henry returns as a Colonel, only to find Beatrix consorting with dukes and better. It takes him quite a while to shake off his interest in Beatrix, particularly since his experiment in political intrigue is pretty much a failure on all levels.
A few aspects of this story preoccupied me throughout. First, the story is framed as a memoir, with many chapters titled in the first person (“I Am Left at Castlewood An Orphan”). Yet the vast majority of the text is told in the third person, except when it shifts inexplicably to first person for a sentence or two here and there. I can’t help but feel that this text would not make it past any editor alive today in this form, since there is no reason or symbolic value to these shifts. Today it gives me a vaguely postmodern impression – as though Henry is capable of viewing himself both objectively and subjectively, and that’s not altogether unpleasant, even if it is rather weird.
Another truly bizarre aspect of the story is the fact that Henry spends more than a decade in love with Beatrix, but at the very end, marries her mother, Lady Castlewood. Yes, he has had an almost chivalric devotion to Lady Castlewood for even longer than he has pined for Beatrix. Yes, at the end Beatrix has estranged herself almost completely from both her mother and Henry, and those two are set to depart England for their estate in Virginia. But all that doesn’t change the fact that a man who has been in love with a girl winds up marrying that girl’s mother. Possibly the least modern element in this entire novel.
Another notable aspect of the novel is the inclusion of three influential Restoration writers as characters: Addison, Steele, and Swift. It is safe to say that Thackeray clearly prefers Addision and Steele to Swift, if his portrayals of them are any indication. Thackeray (or at least, his proxy, Henry Esmond) esteems Addison’s poetry more highly than the modern consensus. (These days, Addison and Steele are best known for the stimulating daily paper The Spectator.)
It’s hard for me to guess how this novel read when it was published in the middle of the nineteenth century. At that time it was already historical fiction, being over a hundred years after the events it describes. But I don’t know whether readers at that time were sufficiently knowledgeable of the details of the English Restoration that would either make Henry Esmond suspenseful or not, since the climax hinges on who claims the English throne after Queen Anne dies. Not knowing this, I found the final phase of the novel to be quite engrossing, and I wonder how my experience might have been different had I known this bit of history more thoroughly.
But Thackeray is a master storyteller; in lesser hands, Henry Esmond would be a benign barnacle on the craft of a more dramatic, more interesting wealthy family. Several of those folks try their best to wrest the story away from Henry, but our focus and our sympathies remain with the quietly capable man who will never be fully comfortable among them. That makes the critical secret he carries through most of his life understandable; otherwise it would be nothing more than a stillborn version of The Prince and the Pauper....more
What an oddly wonderful read is Tobias Smollett’s 'The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.' I will admit that many times when I read literature this old, iWhat an oddly wonderful read is Tobias Smollett’s 'The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.' I will admit that many times when I read literature this old, it is as much out of a sense of duty as enjoyment – if we are to be well-read, we must know the canon, after all. But there was much pleasure to be found in this inflected story of a family of convenience as they peregrinate around the United Kingdom on a series of unexpected adventures.
Published in 1771, in some ways 'Humphry Clinker' is very much of its time. It concerns itself with the comforts and strictures of the wealthy classes who can afford to travel to spas to bathe in and drink waters of questionable medicinal value, and who spend considerable amounts of time considering the size of their fortunes (typically expressed in an ‘income’ of a quantity of pounds per year) what those fortunes can afford them, and how those fortunes compare to personages around them. The novel makes use of a number of well-established traditions in British storytelling: mismatched lovers, mistaken identities, affronts to propriety both serious and comic, and the enjoyment of symmetry in stories that are constructed to begin, seemingly meander, and then somehow find their way to an ending that resolves all loose threads to great satisfaction. It is easy to find Shakespeare over Smollett’s shoulder, and both Dickens and Hardy up ahead, ready to take up this form as Smollett had advanced it.
The eighteenth century was a heyday for the epistolary novel, and Smollett puts that convention to great use, telling his tale entirely through letters written primarily by Matthew Bramble and his nephew Jery Melford, but with numerous contributions by Matthew’s sister Tabitha, Jery’s sister Liddy, and Tabitha’s maid, Winifred. Without overstating the case, there is a whiff of postmodernity in the way this linear story unfolds non-linearly through shifting perspective, and Smollett makes capable use of the device, repeatedly showing us scenes through multiple characters’ eyes/pens, and exposing nuances in the perception, priorities, and agendas of these characters. In some cases the effect is broad, as when one character completely misinterprets a situation, and then is shown to be unreliable by the testament of another. In other cases the effect is much subtler, as when two characters see the same thing clearly but ascribe different interpretations to it.
Another hint of postmodernity comes in Smollett’s insertion of himself into the novel in an eponymous tertiary character who appears only for a brief time. It is clear from Smollett’s biography that his own travels greatly influenced this novel, as a number of locations, including Glasgow, London, Bath, and the Carribbean, feature in the work. Clearly, though, the author couldn’t resist the opportunity to wink at the reader from within his own story.
And while the plot is intricate enough, though it largely condenses to three love stories, it is here that Smollett begins to push beyond the boundaries of his literary period. Throughout the book he integrates social, political, scientific, and religious observations that surprised me. Characters in the servant class are shown to have greater capacity for learning, wisdom, and refinement than their employers might like to think – though Lord knows Winifred is not one of those cases. The at times abrasive relationships among the countries in the UK – particularly Scotland, Smollett’s nationality – flare up in heated debates. The validity of water cures is given a highly rational, highly skeptical rejection. There is a rather scathing critique of the Catholic church couched in an anecdote about American Indians. I was aware that invective was definitely a part of literature in the eighteenth century, but I didn’t realize it was this explicit. The validation of the female characters, shown at times to possess penetrating insight and desires worthy of pursuit, also feels significant for this time period.
Despite the facts that Humphry Clinker himself has not yet been mentioned, and he never pens a single letter in this novel, he does turn out to be the lynchpin for the story largely by exemplifying most of the themes Smollett weaves through the various experiences this family has as they travel around England, Wales, and Scotland for a few months. He’s an odd fellow, an ostler with a strong disposition for preaching his Methodist faith, a bit of a cipher in comparison to the other characters who are given the chance to speak/write for themselves, and at nearly every turn a little too perfect and capable. The interest, then, lies in the effects he has on nearly everyone he meets, making him as much a catalyst as a person.
There is much humor in these letters arising both from the group’s misadventures and their retellings of them. In this way, Smollett makes it easy to regard this group of people as nuanced individuals, even as they serve repeatedly to illustrate opposite sides of the many philosophical ideas Smollett treats. My lingering impression of 'Humphry Clinker' is a novel that is almost too subtle for its own good, allowing a casual reader to gloss over the deeper themes in favor of the good fun going on at the surface. ...more
I discovered Donna Tartt a little late. 'The Secret History' was recommended to me about five years ago, and I was astonished by it on so many levels:I discovered Donna Tartt a little late. 'The Secret History' was recommended to me about five years ago, and I was astonished by it on so many levels: her masterful control of the story, the American Gothic undertones, the unapologetic erudition, and perhaps most of all, the deeply visceral quality of the writing. I went looking, but balked at 'The Little Friend' because the primary response to that novel seems to have been disappointment. But the advance buzz for 'The Goldfinch' made it easy to get excited about Tartt’s third novel, and now I think I may have to go back and judge 'The Little Friend' for myself. Donna Tartt is an author who clearly seeks out and writes solely to her own standards, and while that may seem like a truism, her example only makes obvious how few authors maintain that level of autonomy in their work.
'The Goldfinch' is the story of a manchild, Theo, and his fated relationship with a quirky masterwork, the painting of the title. There is a great deal of serendipity, which in Theo’s case might as well be called entropy, since his world seems constantly to be disintegrating at every edge he isn’t laboring to shore up. To make matters worse, there is a notable dearth of capable figures to help Theo make sense of the wreckage of his adolescence; Theo’s well being comes down to the equivalent of a coin toss too many times to mention. Somehow, he struggles into adulthood, at which point his questionable choices are easy to fathom, considering what he’s been through. In Theo, Tartt makes a distinctive case not exactly for moral relativism, but for the highly individualized ways people grapple with right and wrong, selfishness and altruism, meaning and chaos. The mantra-like undercurrent of 'The Goldfinch' is a short list of pairs, invoked twice by Theo: “Dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate.”
I have seen a number of reviews that characterize 'The Goldfinch' as Dickensian for its desultory scope and characters that in less capable hands would devolve into caricature and even cartoon. I can see the merits of those comparisons, but I thought more frequently of what might be called the Bennington School or the famed literary brat pack of the mid-eighties – Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerny, and Tama Janowitz. Tartt shares with her colleagues both a preoccupation with and a talent for describing the rawness of substance abuse, be it cigarettes, alcohol, prescriptions, or illegal drugs. While those extended passages of skin-crawling slow-motion self-destruction can give the impression of nihilism, in toto they become a kind of epistemology not far-removed from the Beat writers, albeit more pessimistic: compromised perception (enjoyment or transcendence are never mentioned) becomes a proxy for the pointlessness and futility of the modern experience.
Tartt has spoken in interviews about her desire to create an immersive experience with her novels, and as with 'The Secret History', she succeeds wildly on that score. I found myself at times so completely held in the Thunderdome wasteland of exurban Las Vegas, the bleak isolation of rainy Manhattan streets, the nightmarish underbelly of Amsterdam, that it was a shock to look up from the book and find an unremarkable room, a simple view out the window. The complex, difficult, frequently treacherous relationships in the book are etched so completely, they vie with reality.
That said, Tartt’s descriptive thoroughness occasionally made it difficult to ignore the instances in which her description doesn’t ring true: a phalanx of social workers mysteriously lacking social skills and resorting to textbook speak, a Russian who thinks Absolut is good vodka. And on the opposite extreme, there are moments in which the level of description exceeds naturalism and reads more as though Tartt is trying to prove she did a lot of research: too much foreign language slang, too many lists of stores in Amsterdam.
There is a strange, deus ex machina aspect to some later plot points when Theo must navigate a series of art criminals from America to Europe; certain information and connections seem to come too easily, considering how gleefully Tartt has piled complication upon complication onto Theo’s life. And there is a certain tidiness to the resolution that might not have been necessary, particularly after a number of late complications turn out to be red herrings.
But those cavils aside, ‘The Goldfinch’ is a thoroughly engrossing read, with prose that makes most writing feel hopelessly pedestrian, and people and observations that are so strongly alive, they wriggle visibly on the page. I will set my clock for ten years, eagerly anticipating Donna Tartt’s next work. ...more
It had been a while since I’d spent time with Salman Rushdie – I followed him through the late nineties, enjoying ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’, ‘The GroundIt had been a while since I’d spent time with Salman Rushdie – I followed him through the late nineties, enjoying ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’, ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’ and ‘Fury’, but haven’t read his more recent works. Always on my to-read list, though, was his earlier and best-regarded novel, the one that won him the Booker Prize and cemented his position as a major author.
A brief overview of ‘Midnight’s Children’ can be misleading in the context of modern commercial fiction. A fictionalized first-person history of India (and by association, Pakistan) as it transitioned from British colony to wobbly-legged sovereign state, the novel takes as its premise the magic realist notion that all the babies born in the first hour of India’s independence (August 15, 1947) received unique supernatural powers. The narrator, Saleem Sinai, is one of the most powerful of those children, having been born precisely at the stroke of midnight, and at an early age he unlocks his ability to connect all the Midnight’s Children in a psychic conference.
What may be misleading about that summary is that it is likely to put the reader in the mindset of Harry Potter, with a host of young wizards-in-training. But in truth the better comparison would be to Forest Gump, because Rushdie structures the novel – which encompasses the roughly 31 years before India’s transition point as well as the 31 years after – so that Saleem and his family are personal witnesses to the historical and political events that shape the subcontinent over that time period: key elections, social watersheds, and military actions are threaded into the lives of his relatives. The focus is much less on how Saleem might use his powers for good or evil (though there is a lurking, changed-at-birth nemesis who provides a counterpoint) and more on how those powers allow him to describe his country and its collective life more vividly.
From the United States (and who knows, from Europe, too, perhaps) it is easy to regard India as a culture of superlatives: India is home to so many people, so many languages, so many religions, so much history, that in my mind the region is a sort of huge bazaar overflowing with life and teeming with all sorts of energy, both kinetic and potential. Of course that is an incredibly colonialist perspective, but for better or worse, Rushdie’s novel gives the same impression. The plot is a warren of anecdotes, digressions, conflicts, and resolutions held together as much by Rushdie’s strong narrative voice as any through-line. That is not a fault; it is if anything a testament to Rushdie’s masterful control of a novel that few other authors would attempt.
To paint with a broad brush, American culture is quite comfortable taking India’s most accessible exports – its cuisines, its decorative motifs, new-age distillations of its religious philosophies – and yet remaining quite ignorant of the thousands of years that have shaped it, and even the complex path it has taken in the modern era to become a nuclear power at the same time it engages with its huge population through ancient class distinctions and abject poverty. I am only smart enough to understand my own ignorance of these things, but my lingering impression upon finishing ‘Midnight’s Children’ is less historical than psychological. I feel as though I have glimpsed through Rushdie’s kaleidoscope the cultural identity – a dizzying crossroads of mythology, geography, economy, and yes, food – that makes India both an ancient and a modern people at the same time.
Rushdie writes as Ella Fitzgerald sings, with a sort of effortless effervescence, as though the words pour out of these artists involuntarily. At times he is a touch showy with his allusions, but his maximalist style provides ample room for that. I do feel that the first half of ‘Midnight’s Children’ succeeds unequivocally, while around the middle mark some of the contrivances to place Saleem on the pulse of the historical timeline begin to feel more contrived, so at times I had a sense that the forward momentum wasn’t as self-evident as it was in the first half. But Rushdie sets an incredibly high bar with this novel, and he absolutely clears it, leaving the reader both disoriented and exercised when it’s over. ...more
I don't quite recall how I learned of The Catcher in the Rye when I was in middle school, but the copy my parents gave me bears the year I was in eighI don't quite recall how I learned of The Catcher in the Rye when I was in middle school, but the copy my parents gave me bears the year I was in eighth-grade. After all the time that's passed, when Garrett suggested we reread it together, I was curious to find out how my experience of the book would change.
To say my experience changed is perhaps an understatement, and probably the best proof that Catcher is not, in fact, a young-adult novel, but a work of literature that merits multiple readings at multiple times in one's life. The aspects of the story I remembered from all those years ago - the jagged path Holden takes, his encounter with the prostitute and her pimp, his shivering visit to the duck pond in Central Park - are trees in a forest I'm pretty sure I missed completely.
I trusted Holden more, back then. I didn't notice how subjective his account is, how frequently the motives he ascribes to others are very likely wrong, how distorted and unattainable his ideas of personal authenticity, falseness, purity, and corruption are. I accepted his frustration with the world, not realizing that while Holden is absolutely mismatched with his world, there is no place for him to go that would suit him any better.
I understand now why he is so fascinated with the ducks at the pond. Each winter, their habitat becomes uninhabitable to them - so what do they do? If Holden can figure that out, it might give him a clue about what he should do about his own world that he finds so uninhabitable.
There were moments this time when I wanted to diagnose Holden with any number of conditions: ADHD, depression/anxiety, something on the mild side of autism. But the truth is that Holden is a teenager. A young man who is incredibly perceptive about the people around him, but equally incapable of making accurate interpretations of what he perceives. He is an idealist, particularly when it comes to the young women in his life who represent purity of a sort a medieval knight might ascribe to his lady. He is the victim of a fifties educational system that presumes that privileged, wealthy boys will do the modicum of work necessary to become privileged, wealthy men, but that has no idea how to cultivate those boys with more sensitive, more vulnerable natures. And he is circling the drain of a nervous breakdown because he has enough monetary resources to sustain him through a cycle of bad choices, but not enough human resources to act as a safety net.
The marvel of Catcher is how ambiguous it is. Every chapter - particularly in retrospect - can be peeled like an onion, offering debates over motivation and meaning. Holden is in some ways better off at the end (he has apparently landed in some sort of sanitarium) but in some ways worse - his over-the-shoulder interpretation of events reveals him to be as maladjusted and unformed as he was when they took place, if not more so. The reader can spend numerous readings connecting dots, noticing patterns among events and relationships, this instance of poor judgment and that, but that only points up the fact that we are trying desperately to save a fictional character who will always be just out of reach.
At several points in this reading, I thought of Holden as a type of anti-Ulysses, perhaps as much in Joyce's version as Homer's. Holden is a man on a quest to return home to a woman he loves (in this case, his sister), and he must navigate a series of challenges (in his case, trivial and absurd, rather than heroic) before he gets there. And I wondered if Holden might be viewed as the id of American culture after World War II, when so much was right (if you were male, white, and wealthy) and at the same time so much was wrong (if you weren't), and the fabric of society was beginning to tear in ways that couldn't be predicted in 1950.
Both of those comparisons are probably overreaches. What I can say for sure is that Holden's character is one of the most richly drawn in American literature, even if his is a portrait of alienation and desperation. Whether we want to march next to him as a disaffected youth (as I, a depressed, self-involved teenager, did) or try to find a safe harbor for him (as I, a slightly more adjusted adult, do), he is a mirror for our troubled souls and times....more
When I began reading Quasimodo's poems, I frequently thought of the rules we give young writers as they try their hand in poetry: Describe things so tWhen I began reading Quasimodo's poems, I frequently thought of the rules we give young writers as they try their hand in poetry: Describe things so the reader experiences them vividly, and perhaps in a new way; emphasize the sensory over the intellectual; strive for universal truths. Quasimodo turns his back on rules like these, and so my question is, what makes it okay for him to do so? Wouldn't his poems be graded down for being too muddled, too vague?
The volume doesn't start with his poems, though. His essay, "Discourse on Poetry," is the introduction, and it plunges into a philosophical examination of the way Italian poetry evolved after World War II. Needless to say, my early impressions of this essay and these poems were rather disengaged, rather disaffected.
I hadn't encountered the hermetic school of poets before I picked up Salvatore Quasimodo - a tacit admission that I haven't read Ungaretti and Vittorini, I suppose. And It's essential to understand the poets of this school in the context of fascist Italy, a sociopolitical climate that prompted them to turn inward and attempt to restore purity to oppressively charged language through increasingly esoteric images and structures.
The result is an aesthetic that bears a strong affinity to that of the symbolists, though I would say the symbolists wield their subjectivity more aggressively. At any rate, the first half of Quasimodo's poetic work is quite opaque, reading like the melancholic daydreams of a disenchanted man who doesn't sketch in quite enough details for the eavesdropper to follow.
But to understand Quasimodo's earlier poems as small, carefully protected sanctuaries from the fascist world outside his window - it changes them almost completely. To understand his later poems as a kind of quiet, personal expurgation of those earlier times - it gives them a purpose, a value that isn't immediately apparent otherwise.
Poetry does not exist in a vacuum. Many poems can be enjoyed and appreciated without any knowledge of the author or the author's contextual experience. But almost any work of art takes on additional dimensions, additional richness when studied in context, and poetry is no exception. So Quasimodo's exegesis on the relationship between twentieth-century Italian history and its poetry is really important to his connecting with his work.
While after 1945, his style evolves into a much more meditative, even religious voice, the quasi-religious imagery can be detected here and there in his earlier work. The poem that struck me the most, "Of Young Woman Bent Back Among the Flowers" (written in the 1930-1933 range) contains a haunting image of a mother garlanding her dead son's head with a crown of white roses. But the final line, which gives the poem its title, conveys a religious experience much more ecstatic, practically free of dogma.
There is a fine line between artwork that can't stand on its own and must be explained (I consider such work to have failed), and artwork that reveals itself more completely to an informed audience. Quasimodo definitely lands in the second category, but his work makes it clear that without a solid foundation in liberal education - the kind of liberal education that is increasingly devalued in the United States - the twenty-first century reader may not connect with him, and that is quite unfortunate....more
I am writing this review of 'Roadblocks to Nirvana' by Patricia Halloff for the most straightforward reason possible, even if that reason isn’t particI am writing this review of 'Roadblocks to Nirvana' by Patricia Halloff for the most straightforward reason possible, even if that reason isn’t particularly common: Ms. Halloff contacted me and asked me to do so. (Don’t interpret that to mean I am biased by friendship; we do not know each other.) I was both flattered and intrigued, so I accepted.
And so, from a somewhat strange starting point, I encountered a novel that possesses the characteristic I prize most in literature: strangeness. Make no mistake – there is nothing pejorative in calling 'Roadblocks to Nirvana' strange. This novel is strange in the way love and death are strange, and like love and death, 'Roadblocks' offers us the chance to wrestle with concepts that are ultimately too great for us, but which we cannot ignore.
The particular concept with which Ms. Halloff encourages us to wrestle is mysticism, and the ways mysticism is fundamentally incompatible with modern Western culture. It does not matter what strain of mysticism; the version encountered by the secular protagonist in 'Roadblocks' arises from the Old Testament but adheres more strongly to Eastern asceticism than it does to Kabbalah. (I suppose there is some resonance with Christian monasticism.) Ripe for a mid-life crisis were she a man, Agnes begins to receive monthly visions from an archangel named Elias (unrecognized by Biblical scholars) and becomes the unwitting catalyst for upheaval in her personal relationships as well as in her community at large.
While the novel belongs to Agnes (yes, I thought of 'Agnes of God,' though that allusion goes only so far), in many ways she is as much a witness as the reader is, relatively passive in the presence of the characters around her. She lives with and cares for her semi-invalid, termagant mother, who is narcissistic to the point of referring to her daughter in the third person when Agnes is standing right there. Agnes maintains a strained acquaintance with the local pharmacist who is her estranged beau, a quietly tortured holocaust survivor whose air of defeat hovers over him like a cloud. And she takes as the most unlikely of lovers the manic street preacher who is surer than anyone of his faith – even at the times when his actions baldly contradict his convictions. Though much of the novel is told by Agnes in the first person, we learn more about her through the observations of these other three characters than we do from Agnes herself.
Agnes is not an ecstatic saint in the making, nor is she a frail vessel leaking sanity. She has an extremely banal experience as she attempts to enact the prescriptives she receives from Elias: She gives away her belongings and winds up not in a romanticized Franciscan robe, but in ill-fitting pants with her hair a mess and her winter coat sorely missed at the bus stop. She stops eating meat and winds up doing twice the work at mealtime, suffering through the bloodlike ketchup splattering from her mother’s hamburger. She struggles to take a vow of celibacy, even though the lover she leaves is emotionally abusive. Over the course of the novel, it is Agnes’s humanity, not her piety, that comes into sharper focus. (This is true of virtually everyone in the book, regardless of their religious starting point.) For that matter, some of the ways her piety changes her are troubling enough that it’s tempting to like her better as she had been before archangel Elias showed up.
The success of 'Roadblocks' lies in its avoidance – for the most part – of the abundant clichés waiting on all sides of religion and faith. In several instances, Halloff takes on the clichés directly, lampooning the self-important priest who drops gratuitous Latin phrases into his speech, and penning delightfully hackneyed local news articles about the small town’s struggles to deal with crowds of pilgrims on visitation days. But throughout, 'Roadblocks' illustrates the many ways our culture stumbles when it confronts God in any direct, irrational, dangerous way. Religions do their best to buffer us from our gods – with the intercession of authoritative books and people, through the filter of grace – and we quickly founder if we find ourselves outside those familiar boundaries. As Agnes’s community struggles with the possibility that she truly might be having angelic visions, civic priorities, the separation of church and state, and the social contract itself are tested in ways that feel real and prompt compelling insights in the reader.
Halloff hails from the more-is-more school of writing; her paragraphs are seven-layer cakes, and even if her idea is apparent by the fourth or fifth layer, only occasionally does the work feel overwritten. And she has an exceedingly dry sense of humor – while Elias speaks in old English (verily, speaketh, wouldst), he adds a soupçon of the vernacular at times (chuckest in particular made me smile), warping the archangelic sensibility into a modern world of housing projects and pilgrims who can’t think of anything more sophisticated to sing after Agnes’s visions than “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
Most satisfyingly, Halloff maintains admirable control of Agnes’s story to the very end. The number of deus ex machina options available to a writer in a story like this is practically infinite, but Halloff steers us to an ending that is as satisfying as it is ambiguous – leaving us with additional insights into the world of her story on even the very last page. If I quibbled, I would ask for stronger resolutions for the secondary characters – Mother, the druggist, and the street preacher in particular seem to fade away rather than reach destinations. And a few characters who gave no other indication of being Jewish dabbled heavily in Yiddish terms, which felt out of place. But that didn’t prevent me from enjoying 'Roadblocks to Nirvana,' which I could imagine being adapted very nicely into a play or film. ...more
This is a novel that puts me in the not completely unfamiliar position of attempting to balance my extreme distaste for the narrator - and even for hiThis is a novel that puts me in the not completely unfamiliar position of attempting to balance my extreme distaste for the narrator - and even for his story - against my admiration for the way the story is told. Let's get the aggravations out of the way: objections so strong, they caused me to put this relatively short novel down twice before I finally finished it.
The Chevalier de Grieux is nothing short of an idiot. A young man from a wealthy family, he falls in rapturous love with a lower class waif, Manon, and proceeds to squander his fortune, his education, his career, and his principles for her. Which is bad enough, but the net result is that he squanders HER, too - his inept actions put her in greater and greater jeopardy, until he has no choice but to follow her to the penal colony of New Orleans, (view spoiler)[ where his final set of bad choices ultimately cost her her life. (hide spoiler)]
And Manon is bringing little or nothing to the table. Aside from her apparently ravishing looks and ability to cry on command, it's difficult to understand why anyone would devote himself to her. She's easily distracted by other lovers, only seems genuinely interested in the Chevalier when he has large quantities of money to spend on her, and at several points seems completely ready to throw him over for a wealthier suitor, until he bumbles in with another disastrous rescue attempt and she has no choice but to throw her lot in with him again.
The part that brought my irritation to a full boil was the very end. (view spoiler)[ The Chevalier has spent the book insisting that he would prefer to die than to lose Manon. On several occasions when Manon appears to be lost for good, he seriously considers suicide as the preferable alternative to life without her. Which would be at least vaguely romantic, I suppose. But after he has dragged Manon into the wilderness of Lousiana, causing her to die from some combination of exhaustion and exposure, does he immolate himself on her pyre? Does he run himself through to mingle his blood with hers? Does he blow out his brains in hope of joining her in the idiot's lounge in heaven? No. He goes home to France. End of story. Seriously. The book practically ends with, "So I made my way back to France, to see where life would take me next."
There's that Alanis Morissette lyric that reminds her ex-lover that he told her he'd hold her until he died, so now their love is over, why is he still alive? That's the question I would ask the Chevalier, who is exposed in the end, by his own admission, as a melodramatic twit for whom Manon was the world... until she wasn't. (hide spoiler)]
I almost believe Abbe Prevost wrote the story as an endurance read, to see if anyone would care to stick with these two repulsive people until the end, though from what I understand, the novel received quite a different response in 1731 - it was found to be salacious, ribald, and titillating enough to be banned, likely because the two leads never get married, and Manon engages in a number of sexual liaisons to raise funds over the course of this steeplechase.
So why bother, then? Why see this novel through? Because there is a quality in the narration that makes it difficult to believe this writing dates to the eighteenth century. There is an almost relentless immediacy in the way it is told, even though the entire story is a long flashback. We are shackled to the Chevalier's side, almost in real time, and he drags us through his desperate story, daring us to question his obviously questionable judgment. In short, it is because of the richness of the Chevalier's monologue that I can hate him as rabidly as I do. It is because of the relentlessness of his self-inflicted misadventures that I can be so provoked by them.
Even though the modern romance novel is in many ways the mirror opposite of Manon Lescaut, it is a direct descendant of this novel - in which romantic love no longer inspires noble gestures, but pratfalls and reversals of fortune, and in which passion translates not into gallantry but impetuousness and self-sabotage. The Chevalier is the anti-hero, the Don Quixote, and if only Manon were his unseen, unharmed Dulcinea - instead she bears the full brunt of all his windmill-tilting.
There is a reason to read Manon Lescaut - it is a key link between Cervantes and later writers like Alexandre Dumas. It is with that perspective that I would recommend approaching this text.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
In one of her formalist asides, Anne Carson writes, "prose is a house poetry a man in flames running quite fast through it" - a striking image, but neIn one of her formalist asides, Anne Carson writes, "prose is a house poetry a man in flames running quite fast through it" - a striking image, but neither half really describes the writing of "Red Doc>." If I elaborated on that analogy to find a place for Carson, I might describe her as the one who wanders through the darkened house, lighting her way with a series of matches she discards without making sure they have gone completely out.
The book foregrounds its severe structural choices: Thin vertical ribbons of justified type whose thicker left and right margins serve as a visual reminder of the way the words in between amount to only a sliver of the world, the lives to which they point. A complete absence of the comma, that most human, most fallible punctuation mark. Dialogues sheared off with slashes rather than quotations and he-said, she-said.
But I was equally struck by the way the writing gave the impression of being almost irresponsibly arbitrary and yet as well-worn, as organically placed as river rocks. There is a story that swims in and out of focus in "Red Doc>" - a story we believe is the loosest of sequels to Carson's "Autobiography of Red" largely because she tells us that's what it is - but at least after the first reading, I would say the story is as much a device as the typesetting. All is in service of an experiment in the porosity of language - the unexpected moments when language stops being the customary barrier between one interior life and another, and bits of unfiltered life actually pass through intact to scare us, harm us, and jolt our hearts out of the rote exercise of beating. The fact that many of those unfiltered moments deal in grief, mortality, and chaos makes the experience all the more wrenching.
There is a fair share of truly poetic writing here; as one character ponders how musk oxen (one of whom also happens to be a mythologically transmogrified character) might regard humans, Carson writes of animals, "Do they experience the entire cold sorrow acre of human history as one undifferentiated lunatic jabberwocking back and forth from belligerence to tender care?" But most of the work of this book is done with incredibly utilitarian words, phrases, and sentences. The sublime does not come out of linguistic fireworks but basic speech, which, after all, is the currency of the real world and real life.
I have a sense of Anne Carson as a writer too fiercely independent, too resolute to care whether her reader follows her or not. As "Autobiography of Red" did, "Red Doc>" gives the impression of a most personal story, verging on a language all its own, that the reader discovers and then handles carefully, respectfully, finding it fulsome even as it eludes him, and hoping it will continue to reveal itself over time....more
I've been reading an unusual amount of poetry of late - really just a coincidence, but that has resulted in some interesting juxtapositions. I won't gI've been reading an unusual amount of poetry of late - really just a coincidence, but that has resulted in some interesting juxtapositions. I won't go so far as to say that poetry and prose shouldn't be considered under the same umbrella of literature, but the reader engages with most poetry so differently than most prose. And then I begin to think of the compelling exceptions to that rule, and the duality begins to break down...
There is a list of adjectives and corresponding schools easily applied to Pablo Neruda's work: surrealist, impressionist, symbolist - I thought particularly of Rimbaud as I waded into Neruda's thicket of images, but that may be only because Rimbaud is the symbolist with whom I've spent significant time. Like Rimbaud, Neruda's poetry is disorienting and intentionally so. To dramatically simplify the theories of those schools, the aesthetic experience is grounded in the distortion of reality that in turn provides a new perspective on that reality. These poets use vantage points that are equally arbitrary and profound, equally hallucinatory and visionary.
I can't go along with that concept unquestioningly. It seems to me that the surrealists and the symbolists are particularly open to the charge that if a critic questions the meaningfulness of their work, they'll reply, "You just don't get it," which in turn increases the suspicion that a particular emperor may not be wearing any clothes.
Case in point: in Neruda's "Melancholy in the Families," these lines are completely impenetrable to me:
I keep a blue flask, inside it an ear and a portrait: when night forces the owl's feathers, when the raucous cherry tree shatters its lips and threatens with husks that the ocean wind often penetrates, I know that there are great sunken expanses, quartz in ingots slime, blue waters for a battle, much silence, many veins of retreat and camphors, fallen things, medals, acts of tenderness, parachutes, kisses.
The images come so quickly, and repeatedly are so incongruous, that I have to discard any thread of potential meaning I pick up before I have finished the next line. This is verse that makes a skeptic of me.
But immediately following those lines, the clouds part and this brilliant set appears:
It is only the passage from one day toward another, a single bottle moving across the seas, and a dining room to which come roses, a dining room abandoned like a thorn...
Then I wonder if I was impatient, and that maelstrom of previous images (flask, night, ocean waters, silence, acts of tenderness) is the context that makes this passage of time, this bottle moving across this sea, this empty dining room with its memories of life, so affecting.
And I remember other images of domestic desolation in his poetry, other indications of loss, of heartbreak, of isolation. This from the prose-form "The Uninhabited One:"
'Often, when night has fallen, I bring the light to the window and I look at myself, supported by miserable boards, stretched out in the dampness like an aged coffin, between walls brusquely feeble. I dream, from one absence to another, and at another distance, welcomed and bitter.'
The collective impact of Residence on Earth, finally, is not a parade of naked emperors, but of emperors wearing the kind of haute couture that makes middle Americans scratch their heads and wonder who would ever wear something so impractical or downright absurd. That, ultimately, is missing the point. As visceral as Neruda's poetry is - ruthlessly so at times - the viscerality is the prelude to an intellectual process during which fragments of language fit back together in unexpected but revelatory ways, frequently combining fact and interpretation, thought and emotion with techniques unavailable to rationality on its own.
Perhaps the emblematic "Ars Poetica" best encapsulates my experience of Neruda, expressing my relationship with his writing, with art in general (mine and others') and even with life as a whole. It is somewhat stark, but pulsing with life and the willingness - his, and hopefully mine - to risk almost anything for a glimpse of something greater.
but the truth is that suddenly the wind that lashes my chest, the nights of infinite substance fallen in my bedroom, the noise of a day that burns with sacrifice, ask me mournfully what prophecy there is in me, and there is a swarm of objects that call without being answered, and a ceaseless movement, and a bewildered man....more
It’s been perhaps fifteen years since I read Maugham’s 'Of Human Bondage', and having now finished 'The Razor’s Edge', I have a desire to go back andIt’s been perhaps fifteen years since I read Maugham’s 'Of Human Bondage', and having now finished 'The Razor’s Edge', I have a desire to go back and read the other again. My memory of it is not distinct enough - did it influence me as subtly as this book did? Was there the same strange tension between artlessness on the surface and artfulness underneath?
At the start, 'The Razor’s Edge' appears to be a society story - perhaps why I was reminded of Henry James at several points. The idle wealthy grow idly rich in America between the wars, and if a young veteran slips bewilderingly through the cracks to follow a comfortable but comparatively impoverished bliss, that’s his loss, and he’s likely there as a foil to the strongly defined characters who have grand trajectories planned for themselves.
But as Maugham relates, having made himself the Greek-chorus-like narrator of the story, Larry (the wanderlust man) gradually becomes the pivot around which all the other lives turn, whether they realize, admit, resent it or not. As personal tragedies, stock market crashes, misplaced priorities, and bodily harm take heavy tolls on the rest of the characters, Larry seems to shed his concerns, his limitations, and even his mortality by opening himself first to self-directed education, then to humility through manual labor, and finally to a blend of Eastern philosophy and mysticism - in short, he runs in the opposite direction of everyone else.
The others’ disparagement of him and their inability to comprehend his choices on even the most basic level are a little harder for the reader to understand now, on the other side of the era Maugham (and a few of his contemporaries) foreshadowed by more than a decade: the countercultural, anti-rational, Upanishad-reading sixties. We all have friends who have gone to ashrams and transformed their lives to one degree or another under the influence of a guru and a meditative practice. Poor Isabel, Elliott, and Gray have no frame of reference.
I am making this novel sound rather didactic, and its excellence lies in its avoidance of just that - even when Larry provides a chapter-length monologue on the wisdom he’s acquired. That’s possible because Maugham has spent most of the novel showing us these ideas through comparison and contrast before he permits Larry to say almost anything at all.
Everyone gets what they want in the end - not just Larry. And that, ultimately, is Maugham’s point: be careful what you spend your life wishing for, because if you get to the end and your wish turns out not to have been your true heart’s desire, it will be too late to go back and try again. That idea resonated in me very deeply as I read this book - I became aware of my own age, my own aging, in a way I don’t believe I ever had before, and I found myself looking around my life, wishing for less complexity, more stillness, more joy that didn’t involve large sums of money.
To a lesser degree, I was fascinated by Maugham’s depiction of Elliott, who gives more than a whiff of homosexuality from within the confines of his role as a taste-making eunuch in the story. He is a man who Freud might have examined at length in an essay on repression and sublimation. Because Larry is held in the wings for much of the book, Elliott emerges as the most complex character, and his life is the most tragic of all the characters because of his nuanced telling.
I was frequently baffled by problems with Maugham’s writing on the sentence level - awkward construction, inefficient structure, and stilted dialogue. But those weaknesses couldn’t restrain a novel with a powerful, if quiet idea that remains with me almost as a meditation....more
Thus far in my reading life, I have connected much more strongly with prose than poetry, with a few notable exceptions - Emily Dickinson, for example.Thus far in my reading life, I have connected much more strongly with prose than poetry, with a few notable exceptions - Emily Dickinson, for example. When I spend time with a classic poet, it is as much with an academic desire to round out my experience of the Western Canon as it is to have a transformative aesthetic experience.
When this fall I stumbled across a gorgeous hardcover volume of Keats’s collected poems from 1895 going for a pittance in a used bookstore, I took that as my sign from the universe that it was time for me to explore Keats, and so I did. He surprised me at times, but largely confirmed my feeling that while the romantic tradition is an essential through-line in Western literature (and I’ll go ahead and lump in the pastoral/bucolic), it is not a tradition with which I connect strongly.
Keats’s story is tragically romantic in itself - a young man, largely unappreciated during his brief life, who tends to his family as they die of tuberculosis one after another before he succumbs himself, unaware of a fortune that might have changed his circumstances considerably. It is not difficult to find melancholy and even torment close to the surface of many of his poems.
An early sonnet, sometimes titled ‘Sonnet to Solitude,’ was the first in the collection to strike me, but for the most part, Keats’s early work - including the extensive ‘Endymion’ (of the oft-quoted “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”) - is a bit opaque for me, perhaps because I am insufficiently acquainted with mythology, or perhaps because it repeatedly squanders dramatic tension and character development even though frequently the poems are narrative.
There is, however, a moment in Endymion (Book IV) that showed me Keats as a poet of greater substance than describing misadventures in forest settings:
…There lies a den, Beyond the seeming confines of the space Made for the soul to wander in and trace Its own existence, of remotest glooms. Dark regions are around it, where the tombs Of buried griefs the spirit sees, but scarce One hour doth linger weeping, for the pierce Of new-born woe it feels more inly smart: And in these regions many a venom’d dart At random flies; they are the proper home Of every ill: the man is yet to come Who hath not journeyed in this native hell.
Before that, I had missed this kind of abstraction, this level of metaphor in Keats’s writing. It feels almost as though Keats had been writing his way to these lines over the previous thousands in ‘Endymion.’ They revived my interest in seeing what else he might have to offer.
The most astonishing moment came with a lesser-known poem called ‘Isabella, or The Pot of Basil.’ A relatively short narrative, it is so strange, I can’t understand why Tim Burton hasn’t adapted it for a creepy, stop-motion film:
Isabella has a lover beneath her station and two brothers who aren’t happy about that. So the brothers take the poor guy out in the forest and kill him. Isabella has a dream that reveals the fate - and the location - of her missing lover. She goes out to the forest, finds his body, cuts off his head, brings it home, and plants it in a pot of basil. All of which is weird and tortured enough, but the brothers come to suspect the reason why this pot of basil is thriving, steal it so there is no proof of their crime, and leave their sister heartbroken and head-of-her-dead-lover-less. The end.
If that doesn’t get a WTF from you, even today, I don’t know what will. In a hyperbolic way, ‘Isabella’ is what confirms my faith in the Western Canon, and my continued strategy of self-immersion in it. Of course Keats is a far more subtle and masterful poet than he is with ‘Isabella,’ but moments like this - of complete and unexpected disorientation that force me to think differently about the role literature plays in our culture and our consciousness - are to be cherished.
‘Hyperion’ is the major, if incomplete, poem left unpublished at Keats’s death, and it is the work I wish he had lived to finish to his satisfaction. My final transcendent moment with this poet came there:
There is a roaring in the bleak-grown pines When Winter lifts his voice; there is a noise Among immortals when a God gives sign, With hushing finger, how he means to load His tongue with the full weight of utterless thought, With thunder, and with music, and with pomp: Such noise is like the roar of bleak-grown pines; Which, when it ceases in this mountain’d world, No other sound succeeds…
Keats was unhappy with ‘Hyperion’ because he considered it excessively derivative of Milton, and I am not qualified to comment on that. What I can say is that passages like this one epitomize the way nature - one of the original, if not the first muses of artists - is an inexhaustible reflection of the human experience, and will always be, no matter how much technology we place between nature and ourselves. I look past my computer monitor to the birches out my window and think of the roar they would make if an ice storm pulled them all down, and I understand that sound as the perfect expression of the sublime - the ideas that lay beyond my grasp, but define me with their unknowability.
Which is to say that I understand the importance of the romantic/pastoral tradition in literature, even if it is not a personal favorite. I was changed by reading Keats, and that is my standard for canonic literature. You may choose to focus on ‘Isabella’ and ‘Hyperion,’ but spend a little time with John Keats and see if he doesn’t change the way you look at the world when you walk out your front door....more
I do not read much in the dystopian genre because I tend to confine myself to classic literature (so, more of a statement about me than the dystopianI do not read much in the dystopian genre because I tend to confine myself to classic literature (so, more of a statement about me than the dystopian genre). But "Doom Days" was put in my hands, and I thought, why not? And I'm very happy to have spent time with it. Collaboratively written by five authors, each contributing a short story to an inflected cycle, "Doom Days" steers clear of flashy devices - science fiction-y new technology, zombie-like mutation - and focuses on the drama inherent in the struggle to stay alive that becomes acute when all number of basic things can no longer be taken for granted.
In a post-Collapse world, North America has returned to a settlers' territory, with the economy reduced to agriculture and trade in the dwindling remnants of civilization: medicine, batteries, and weapons. The first three stories are practically fictionalized sociological writing, making case studies of small sets of characters that illustrate the challenges of this unfortunate new world, in which social compacts are held only when convenient, and each pregnancy takes on miraculous significance in a time that is barren in so many ways.
On one level, I admire the sociological tone of these three stories because they are convincing in detail. It wasn't until the fourth section by KD Edwards, though, that I was completely gripped by "Doom Days." In 'Grasshopper,' the challenges of this world are finally put to the service of a dramatic story requiring an emotional investment from the reader. As the patriarch of one family exploits the gray areas in the fragile civilization of an outpost town in North Carolina, actions and their consequences resonate very personally for the people around him, shaping their concepts of honor, loyalty, and love. This is a story deserving of expansion, though it certainly benefits from the context of the first three stories.
The last story provides a solid final upping of the stakes. The potential dangers of the roving criminals in earlier stories are eclipsed by the greater threat of an organized group that possesses enough resources to transform North America into a despotic regime. But this piece is cluttered with some unnecessary details, hampered by an ambiguous ending, and rife with copy editing errors, a bit of a let-down after the previous stories had maintained an admirable level of quality for a self-published work.
Nonetheless, I recommend "Doom Days" as a strong example of collaborative writing and world-building. There is much here to admire, and much to provoke thought....more
Edmond Jabès’s The Book of Questions lingers at the edges of fiction, revealing itself as if by the intermittent sweep of a lighthouse torch. It dartsEdmond Jabès’s The Book of Questions lingers at the edges of fiction, revealing itself as if by the intermittent sweep of a lighthouse torch. It darts around the story of Sarah and Yukel, a young couple, possibly living, possibly already dead, who have been separated in the concentration camps of World War II, but whose plight surprisingly feels secondary compared to their attempts – and the attempts of innumerable ancient rabbis – to make sense of the world around them on a much greater scale. Thousands of years have shaped these two, to the point that the future seems to loop around behind them, melding with the past, reducing the present to nothing more than the time in which the next question is asked – a question that is merely a restatement of all the questions that have preceded it, and a refraction of questions as yet unasked.
It is common for a work of literature to meet the reader partway – revealing itself in a manner that encourages the reader by engaging in familiar conventions, following customary structures, using established concepts. The idea of the author meets the interpretation of the reader on the page, each doing its share of the work. Of course there are exceptions – Finnegans Wake achieves the immediacy of thought, practically blinding the reader. Beckett uses logic to destroy logic, stranding the reader without a compass. With The Book of Questions, Jabès engages in mysticism that is at once both so mundane and so impenetrable that the reader has the impression of wandering through an Escher landscape, where dimensions shift and realign without warning, multiple times on every page.
This mysticism is grounded in Semitism, though from my limited understanding, it is not necessarily Kabbalistic. But it is expansive, finally enveloping the gentile world, too. Jabès frames the endless heartbreak of the Hebrew people with real poetry: “The Jews have taken shelter behind the stones thrown at them.” “The Israelite has his eyes turned toward Jerusalem in the way the grown child looks at his mother’s womb: the cause of his misfortunes.” The ancient/modern experience of the Jewish people becomes the ancient/modern experience of the world that engendered the Jews, trampled them, and now pulses with their culture so thoroughly, so unknowingly, the fabric cannot be unwoven.
One is left with the impression of a culture that has grown weary even of its own weariness, and is as surprised by its own endurance as by its brilliance. Western civilization and Jewish culture entered into a symbiotic relationship that reached a new level of dysfunction in the twentieth century, but the message of The Book of Questions is that the concentration camp experiences of Sarah and Yukel – the collective scream that is the Holocaust – is, like everything else, a question whose answer is a Möbius loop of life and death, good and evil, body and spirit, ephemeral and ineluctable....more
I don’t read plays often - I’m most inclined to read a play in anticipation of seeing a live performance of it. (I have numerous happy memories of sitI don’t read plays often - I’m most inclined to read a play in anticipation of seeing a live performance of it. (I have numerous happy memories of sitting in line outside the Public Theatre in New York on a summer morning, reading a Shakespeare play while I waited for the free tickets to see an exquisite production at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park that night.) When I do read plays, I am struck by the way most of them require more proactivity than most literature. One must infer an understanding of this world, these characters, their actions, solely from dialogue and occasional marking notes.
When a character in a play emerges forcefully from the page - almost of her own will - as Hedda Gabler does from Ibsen’s play, it is an incredibly strange experience. She makes the same complex assault on the reader as she does on her peers in her claustrophobic sitting room with its antechamber. She is by turns rational and of questionable sanity, pragmatic and idealistic, self-serving and outwardly motivated, kind and cruel, constructive and nihilistic. It is a disorienting experience to be near her, and she has the effect of warping one’s own sense of the world as it passes too close to the force field of her own.
It is very difficult to make definitive statements about Hedda because she inherently contradicts them, and it is this complexity that makes her both maddeningly inhuman and sublimely more-than-human. Her statements and actions frequently are only extrapolations of impulses familiar to all of us: to want the best for ourselves and those around us, to be tempted to find satisfaction when others’ misfortune contributes to our success, to wish to wield power over those around us and avoid finding ourselves at the mercy of others, to feel a heroic purpose in our lives rather than the mundane quotidian.
Hedda is sometimes referred to as an “unwomanly” woman, but that assessment indicates more about the gender concepts of the critic than Hedda. She avoids the common roles assigned to female characters - damsel, mother, crone, even wife - but that is a victory for her and Ibsen, considering how male characters had enjoyed a much broader spectrum of roles long before the nineteenth century. She single-handedly determines both the fate and the interpretation of every other character in the play, for better but more likely for worse, elevating herself to the level of archetype. She is a female Apollo who yearns to be Dionysus, destroying both in the process.
My limited reading in drama means I am relying as much on the consensus of others as my own discernment when I say that Ibsen is one of Shakespeare’s greatest heirs. But if Shakespeare pioneered the high art of characters who are more human than we are, it is easy to agree that Ibsen rises to that standard with characters like Hedda Gabler....more
My first experience of Thomas Hardy was “The Return of the Native” in high school, and I count it as a formative literary experience. For years afterMy first experience of Thomas Hardy was “The Return of the Native” in high school, and I count it as a formative literary experience. For years after that I was occasionally rereading that novel, until it finally occurred to me that Hardy had plenty of other fine works to explore.
But I wasn’t methodical about it: “Jude the Obscure,” “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” “The Mayor of Casterbridge,” - I didn’t read the major works in chronological order. Finally I’ve returned to what is considered Hardy’s first major novel: “Far from the Madding Crowd.”
And it was somewhat of a relief, because Hardy is a bit of a downer, and the social and moral tones of his later novels are a bit relentless, even if they are intricately crafted and penetratingly observed. “Madding Crowd” is a romance, through and through, and while it does leave a few wrecked persons in its wake, it is the classic literary equivalent of that classic eighties ballad by Survivor, “The Search is Over,” in which the hero tilts at a number of windmills before realizing his true love has been waiting steadfastly at his side.
Except in this case the hero is a heroine - Bathsheba - and her loves weave among one another with a complexity that couldn’t be expressed in a pop song. I love Hardy’s prose, and I have been moved by his symbolism, but I admire him most for his structure. Only recently did I learn he trained as an architect, and while that explains his deft descriptions of houses and towns, I think it also shows in the way he constructs and controls his twisting plots.
One of the rewards of having read the later novels first is enjoying in “Madding Crowd” the first glimpses of the world to which Hardy returns repeatedly - Casterbridge and its environs. And it’s possible to locate here the seeds of Hardy’s stark world view that would flourish in subsequent works.
Because Hardy is modern, ultimately. It’s easy to overlook, with all the farming and the sheep and the country customs, but he was ushering the Victorian era out before it was quite ready to go, which only resulted in his books provoking outcry and censure. His observations of, and later, his explicit denunciations of the social conventions that governed the lives of individuals almost as severely as if they were still serfs make him an avant-garde, though that might not be immediately obvious from our vantage point.
Case in point: late in “Madding Crowd” Bathsheba is pressed by a lover to explain her conflicted response to his proposal, and she observes, “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” This is a sentiment that might have been expressed by Doris Lessing at the end of twentieth century, not Thomas Hardy at the end of the nineteenth.
And Hardy gives Bathsheba incredible breadth and depth, allowing her to be both the poised, capable lady of the estate she inherits before she has even turned twenty, and the impetuous, naive girl who struggles to learn the world as she faceplants repeatedly on its stage. I had to stop after chapter thirty to marvel at Hardy’s trust in this character, who in the space of a few pages nearly comes unhinged at the emotional mess she has created (and has an even stranger homoerotic moment with her housemaid). As characterization that approximates humanity, it is a near-Shakespearean achievement.
I understand why Thomas Hardy is a regular choice for high school curricula: he tells great stories that easily provoke discussions about social themes that still resonate, and he asks readers to stretch a little, paying nice dividends when we do. For me, though, he has been one of my most consistent literary friends, and I expect he will continue to be as long as I am reading....more
The Forsyte Saga is an endurance read - a sometimes desultory ride through four generations of Forsytes, which makes me cherish the latitude literaturThe Forsyte Saga is an endurance read - a sometimes desultory ride through four generations of Forsytes, which makes me cherish the latitude literature has to tell stories at whatever pace it chooses. There came a point midway through the first book (the Saga is comprised of three, with two interstitial novellas) when I settled in and embraced the way this story was going to present the world of an extended family and the changing England around it, and the rewards of that experience, while subtle, are deep and lasting.
It’s been a while since I’ve read Trollope, but he is the author I thought of while reading Galsworthy - not as much for the social commentary, though that is present in The Forsyte Saga, and only partially because of the considerable length, but for the deft handling of a story both so broad and so personal, it would fall to pieces (or never cohere to begin with) in the hands of a less skilled writer.
The Forsytes are a family that begins the Saga as part of a newly emerging, wealthy, non-aristocratic class in and around London at the end of the nineteenth century, and ends having established itself as a reputable if fading social institution by the 1920s. In the process, two of its branches turn against one another, ultimately creating a crossing of stars perhaps even more damning than those that plagued the Capulets and Montagues.
Everything works. The characters (and there are several handfuls) are finely etched, each with their own complexities and arcs. The relationships are both real and contrapuntal against other relationships, providing all manner of structural and thematic comparisons. The plots are both organic and meticulous, ultimately achieving the self-evidence of a crystal. The themes are both extremely personally experienced by the characters, and writ large against English society as it shifts from Victorian to Edwardian and beyond.
I am fond of saying that to be a good writer, one must be a good reader. So I read novels like this one on a number of levels. I treasure the transformational experience of literature, which truly changes the reader at the same time it entertains. I relish the thoughts the book prompts, and the way those thoughts filter into my daily life. And I am attentive to the master class, teasing out the way Galsworthy’s technique strengthens his story - how he tells it, and why he tells it the way he does.
One final thought: I was not expecting the solidly feminist message that emerges late in the final section. It had lingered there throughout, but Galsworthy eventually puts the words in one of his character’s mouths (or more properly, that character’s pen): as long as women are expected to enter into marriages without equal standing as their husbands - socially, economically, even sexually - all parties are disadvantaged, and the results can be disastrous. There is nothing didactic about this message; it has been expressed so forcefully throughout the story, one can only nod in agreement and ache for the characters who suffer because of it....more