Thursday, June 28, 2007

Kermode on Housman

A fantastic article on the British poet A.E. Housman by Frank Kermode.

I particularly like this line: "Housman’s own pronouncements, in prose and verse, on the meaning of life tend to be stoical; there were things he enjoyed, but he did not seem to enjoy them very much."

I also greatly liked the author bio: "Frank Kermode is trying to write about E.M. Forster."

Housman is someone whom I thought I had and could have no admiration for (as far as I can say, his English verse is as saccharine as a Jolly Rancher), but this is such a good and intriguing summation of his life and person, that I may have to give something by him a look.

Desperate Characters, Paula Fox

Apparently, this is the book that saved Jonathan Franzen's belief in fiction.

While it did not have quite so extensive an effect on me, I do think it is an incredibly fine work, its pleasures more compact and directed than just about any other work of its era. Most critics remark upon its incredible concision and economy—the only real comparison there is Seize the Day, which might be a useful companion piece, perhaps.

At any rate, I remember reading—and being indelibly touched by—Paula Fox's novel for children Monkey Island when I was about nine or ten. My mother gave it to me to read to develop a sense of empathy—the novel is about a kid who becomes homeless in New York. One thing that both novels share is an exquisite sense of permanent crisis that avoids, almost uniquely in terms of 20th century American fiction, any dependence on the type of paranoiac intensity which pervades DeLillo, Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Coover, Gaddis, Roth, et al. (McCarthy sublimates it better than any of the others in a poetic lugubriousness that reaches into the heights of Melvillean metaphysical drama. The others are not quite so linguistically gifted, I feel.) The result for Fox's novel, however, is the same—an overwhelming sense of portentousness, an overdetermination of all actions which is not completely allegorical, but rather synechdochal. Essentially, the action of Fox's novel is both part of and presaging the terror which she evokes.

Desperate Characters is an incredible work of representational fiction, a masterful compression of the modern condition, and an innately wise observation of the way manners and mannerisms intersect.

Poet of the Week: C.P. Cavafy

Here is a great page dedicated to C.P. Cavafy and his work (and the Wikipedia page).

Cavafy was a Greek poet active (or most productive) around the turn of the century. I know very little of his life other than what I've read on various websites (like the two above). He is, however, a real discovery—both for me and for many others, it seems—while there is both a "complete poems" volume and a "collected poems," I imagine Daniel Mendelsohn's forthcoming translations of Cavafy will bring the poet to a broader audience.

One of my friends here at camp—I'm at a book camp right now—is using the following Cavafy poem with his group. It's titled "Ithaka" :
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
If you know me at all, you know my relationship with my home state of Indiana is a fraught one—I both feel very connected to it and yet also feel the need to separate myself from it as a matter of course whenever I am required to bring it into conversation. Some of my friends still laugh at how I tried to pass myself off as being "from" Massachusetts (I was born in Concord) freshman year. I was sincerely apprehensive then about the assumptions people would make about me and my abilities if one of the first things they found out about me was my Hoosier heritage. Next to an army of CT scions and a navy of native New Yorkers, placing my origins amid the rolling cornfields of the great Middle West seemed frightening—for no very good reason.

My feelings about home, and returning to it/from it, have oscillated irregularly since, ranging from fierce pride to self-deprecating "aw shucks" mockery to, once again, genuine embarrassment. I said the word "everybody" as if it were "e'rybody" the other day, and someone told me I pronounced "washcloth" as if it were "warshcloth," a total southern Indiana-ism—even worse than central Indiana-ism!

The path of the hickish aspirant toward intellectual things is well-trod, I know, but it makes me feel no more comfortable. The fact that I have no real desire to live in New York—that, in fact, I'm even a little scared of New York—limits (to a distressing extent) the options I have for cultural exposure and personal/professional advancement. The wonders of the internet can bring me all the films Netflix carries, all the books I can find on Amazon, and thousands of other voices and ideas; but New York is bigger than the internet, it seems—no one can cobble together the cultural configurations which the city so economically and neatly contains.

The last two stanzas of Cavafy's poem, therefore, stand out to me, signaling both the obvious ("Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. / Without her you would not have set out. / She has nothing left to give you now.") and the inspirational ("Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, / you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.") and, finally, the somewhat cryptic ("And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you").

I don't have much more to say about the poem—for reasons of time constraint and the fact that I'm a little blocked—the poem speaks to me loudly, but not in sharp syllables. I hope you can get at where my connection to it may lie, and find it enjoyable yourselves.

Friday, June 22, 2007

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

I honestly have nothing profounder to say about this novel (novelette?) than that I really, really like Ian McEwan's writing. It is so careful, precise, balanced, and yet emotionally evocative that I frequently must take breaks of a few moments from his novels just to let myself catch up to the lyrical beauty I've just taken in.

On Chesil Beach is, in my opinion, flawless; Jonathan Lethem points out this passage in his NYT review of the novel, but I think it's just a perfect encapsulation of how good McEwan is as a novelist on the most rudimentary level (i.e. show, don't tell):

Just before dawn he got up and went through to the sitting room and, standing behind his chair, scraped the solidified gravy from the meat and potatoes on his plate and ate them. After that, he emptied her plate — he did not care whose plate it was. Then he ate all the mints, and then the cheese.

Within the context of the novel's events and the character's state of mind, to eat the mints before the cheese says everything about the disorder, disorientation, and the nearness of revelry to revulsion that McEwan wishes to invest his character with, but in a throwaway, easily missed detail. It's glorious—simply read as much of McEwan as you can.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


A number of my friends praised this film a great deal, so although I loathed the director's previous effort, Secretary, I gave Fur a try. I'm extremely pleased I did and, as pretentious as this may sound, I'm even more pleased that I didn't not like the film—I think a year ago, I would have not had the patience for it nor the willingness to follow the director's lead. I think the fact that I actually did like Fur says in some small sense that I've matured as a film viewer.

Fur's a very diffident film, but beautifully so, and probably takes its spirit from the interplay between Shainberg (the director) and Harry Downey, Jr., who is marvelous here. Fur eschews prestige moments for the most part—there are moments of heightened dynamics or emotionality, but they are arrived at and left so smoothly that one never feels prodded or even provoked, despite the "freakish" content of the film and the completely earnest artificiality of the plot. I give it the Seal of Approval.

Beasts of No Nation, by Uzodinma Iweala

I should probably make the caveat now that I will likely refer to Saul Bellow many times, at least for the first few months of this blog, even in places where the reference may stretch the meaning of tangentiality. Persistently relating all things to the sole author (or theorist) one knows is something I really find frustrating, so I will try to excise these returns to Bellow as frequently as I can.

But I think a reference to Bellow may be useful to start things off here. One of Bellow's biggest complaints about the literary establishment of his day (we're talking late '50's through late '60's here) was the critical and often readerly distrust of any novel that aspired to realism but that failed to manifest the utmost detail-fixated adherence to period and place. Bellow derided the kind of realism which fussed over the real price of a pack of Chesterfields in Minneapolis in 1948 or the correct engine capacity of an Hispano Suiza in 1929. Bellow argued (quite rightly, I think) that, while a number of critics, writers and readers felt that this profusion of detail enriched the novel's verisimilitude, these narrative austerities in fact severely impinged on the novelist's ability to create a story worth telling. What some saw as artistic rigor and authorial commitment, Bellow saw as simple-minded book-keeping.

I think the expectation that novelists will do extraordinarily detailed research about any subject which exceeds or eludes quotidian American existence before even putting pen to paper has only gotten stronger, and it is because of the very real restrictiveness of this expectation that I appreciate the existence of novels like Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist or Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation, both of which eschew any effort at fact-driven, detail-dominated, research-intensive documentation in favor of pointedly subjective, completely fictional narratives which nevertheless face up to—and say a great deal about—contemporary political crises. Both Hamid and Iweala are resolute in their belief that subject-focused, voice-driven fiction can be startlingly relevant to today's global problems; I hope that resoluteness and that belief is infectious.

Comparing these two novels, however, underscores that the author must not only trust the power and relevance of the novel form, but of his or her own voice. Hamid's narrator is completely self-assured and therefore self-contained—detachable from Hamid himself, entirely believable as a character. Iweala's narrator, a young boy named Agu who becomes a child soldier, is not really believable as a character separate from Iweala's intentions. Agu's narration is marked by a syntactically consistent but completely idiosyncratic sort of pidgin English and, because of the simplicity of tense this dialect demands, a profoundly dislocated sense of the time in which Agu is relating his story (is it near-instantaneous, recounted after all the events of the book, somewhere in between?). It is also plagued (at least in my mind) by a number of inopportune similes which seem to be forcefully inserted by an author who doesn't trust the voice he has created to just narrate, especially in moments of greater drama. For instance, "The whole place around us is shaking, just shaking rotten fruit from the shelf, just sounding like it will be cracking into many piece and falling on top of us. He is grabbing my leg, pulling it so hard that it is like it will be coming apart like meat, and my body is just sliding slowly from the stall out into the light and onto the mud." Agu's observation that compares his leg to meat being ripped apart is just that—an observation, not a sensation. It is distanced from the action in an awkward way, halfway between immediacy and artistic description. It is the mark of a writer trying to reclaim a bit of the narrative power he is seeking to invest in his narrator. In other words, it's an author who doesn't fully trust the voice he's created to tell the story he wishes to relate and to convey the meaning and intensity he wishes to transmit.

It should be noted that Beasts of No Nation is essentially an undergraduate thesis. Iweala was 23 when it was published, and he was working on it at Harvard. I don't think, therefore, it very condemnatory to say that it is clear that he hasn't reached a point where he can let his characters speak entirely for themselves—DeLillo has never learned to do that, for one. Iweala simply gave himself a narrator who symbolically made the point(s) and intensity he wished to convey, but who couldn't also do so as a narrator. One of the epigraphs Iweala uses for the novel is a passage from Rimbaud's Season in Hell. I suppose Iweala wishes to write into being an African Rimbaud who can describe hell from the inside; the problem is, Rimbaud wasn't a character in Rimbaud's poems—there was no struggle for artistic control between narrator and author.

I hasten to say that this struggle does not fatally flaw the novel—the instances when it becomes awkwardly evident are relatively few—few enough that most reviewers have seemed to overlook them completely. I think Iweala shows tremendous promise, and I will be very interested in what he does next.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer

I finished this book during senior week, but didn't write about it here mostly because I was stumped for something incisive to say about it. Stumped because the novel itself is so incisive, so lucid, and so graceful in fusing plot and message that all I really could do is summarize the events of the narrative. I could really add nothing more.

Then today, quite miraculously, I ran across this post by Jessa Crispin (aka Bookslut) which references The Wife and links to this article about the problem which Wolitzer illustrates so well in this novel—“Everyone is still fascinated by the inner lives of men. Women are fascinated. Men win, hands down.”

Wolitzer's novel is told by Joan Castleman, the wife of Joe, an American author who resembles (in a couple of respects) Saul Bellow or Philip Roth—a giant of American letters; recognized around the world; unbelievably self-centered, especially in terms of his writing; unabashedly unfaithful; guarded; dependent on women but terrified by them at the same time. Joan, who possesses a tremendously effective voice and a superb eye for detail, was once Joe's student in a creative writing class at Smith, became his lover and, in short order, his fellow fugitive from the ensuing scandal, married him, and has been his writing and research assistant throughout his very successful career. Buried under his successes, Joan gave up at Joe's insistence any hope of writing on her own, even though Joe recognized at Smith that she was a writer of considerable command and fluency. As the novel opens on board a plane to Finland, where Joe will receive the Helsinki prize and be feted to the skies, Joan decides to leave him (I detected echoes of Dreyer's masterpiece Gertrud here). The bulk of the novel consists, then, in her re-examination of her marriage and the gender politics of the American literary scene. And if that sounds dull to you, then you're probably male.

Joan's story allows Wolitzer—in a series of remarkably well-crafted vignettes—to probe the assumptions and conventions which deny women the chance to write anything save what would now be termed "chick-lit." That Jane Austen—who had shed the frilly feminine packaging which still attends the Brontes and could be read equally appreciatively by men and women—has been subjected to numerous recent chicky appropriations (the insufferable Bridget Jones, the Harlequin-quality Darcy "spin-offs") is all too illustrative of the inevitable packaging of almost any woman as what Joe Castleman and his novelist friends would call a "lady-writer."

What Joan makes clear, and what the above-linked article picks up on and highlights, is just this—it's a marketing and purchasing prejudice—because men do not purchase novels written by women, these novels must be marketed toward women in order to sell. But what Joan also demonstrates by the introduction of a couple of female characters who have had literary success and by the invocation of the (now-forgotten) Mary McCarthy, a woman who was able to run with the boys for a time, is that there are channels—deeply grooved and restrictive channels—along which women can move to reach literary acclaim and readership among both sexes. One is to be brash, provocative, and deeply belligerent (Mary McCarthy's strategy) or mentally unstable (the strategy that is often taken to market Virginia Woolf—Michael Cunningham, I'm looking at you). Another is to be nearly sexless (a journalist character's strategy—I thought it may have been a fictionalized Joan Didion) or, as the article puts it, "gender disguise." A third is to be non-white and to write about or from that experience (Wolitzer offers a character who uses her dubiously authentic Inuit heritage as the backbone of her fiction). All these strategies can be marketed successfully to men or obviate the need for any sort of gendered marketing strategy and thus allow these women to emerge from behind the "lady-writer" curtain.

Wolitzer's novel is not just a polemical attack on the conditions and prejudices that make these marketing strategies "necessary"; it is also a first-rate example of the phenomenon. Despite Wolitzer's all-too-obvious talent, her books seem to be read only by other women who are frustrated by the old-boys-club. But The Wife is so much more than a complaint or a protest; it is even more than a keen sociological analysis. The Wife simultaneously mimics and inverts the type of novel which has made Bellow and Roth so successful, showing how little the gender inversion of the narrator really changes.

Also: Wow, this exchange on the NYT blog Paper Cuts is topical, but far too much for me to discuss myself. It's entertaining, nonetheless—the "Jen" commenter is Jennifer Weiner, author of chick-lit novels Good in Bed and The Guy Not Taken, and her interlocutor is Dwight Garner, the NYTBR senior editor.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

And now the real business begins...

Now that college is finally out of the way, I can really begin to learn.

No, no—of course I learned a great deal at Dartmouth, more than I ever expected to, in fact. But I have been looking forward to this interregnum between college and graduate school as a time when I can read an obscene amount of books and try to put together a mental landscape of Twentieth Century American literature.

Of course, to do that, I need a much broader foundation than just 20th C Am. writers, so, because I'm anal and because Blogger now has (or has had for some time) post labels to categorize one's posts neatly, I introduce a set of headings under which I'll try to fit the books I end up reading over the next couple of years:

  • Modern British Fiction (i.e. British novels written after 1945 or thereabouts)
  • World Fiction (i.e. non-Anglophone fiction post-1945)
  • Postcolonial Fiction (i.e. like World Fiction, only written in English originally)
  • Modern American Fiction (post-1945)
  • Shameful Omission Admissions (I've failed to read a lot of very important classics and, galling as it will be to own up to these extraordinary deficiencies, I will come clean about all)
  • Poet 0f the Week (I will try to read as much as I can of one poet each week I maintain this blog)
  • Multi-volume novels (e.g. Proust, Musil, Powell et al.)
  • Canonical American Novels I MUST Read If I Ever Wish to Be a Credible Professor (pretty self-explanatory, I think)
  • Postmodern White Men Writing about History (this last category is actually in preparation for what I think I will be writing my dissertation about, as embarrassing as it is to admit that I'm already thinking about that)
I should be getting a couple of posts up in the next day or two about what I've been reading—it's good stuff, so stay tuned.

Oh, and notice that (once again) I've changed the title of the blog so that it also references John Berryman's Dream Song 14 (to the left in the sidebar), and thus matches the URL of the blog.