December 8, 2013 § Leave a comment
Counterintuitively, James Joyce was too button-down as a young writer and needed many years to loosen up and indulge himself before he produced his best work. (Or maybe it’s intuitive if you give weight to his Catholic upbringing.)
“The Dead” captures an interesting point in his development. It’s long been touted as one of the great short stories, but I have my cynical suspicions that it’s so respected because it finds Joyce working in a traditional mode whose techniques and values (restraint, precision, neatness, politics) square with contemporary ones. But is it an interesting story?
Joyce is a very analytical writer in “The Dead”. He shows the impressive technical mastery he’d already gained at just 25 years old. He lays out his themes clearly, and balances them (living vs. dead, Irishness vs. cosmopolitanism, inner life vs. outer life, etc. etc.) with great precision.
It’s suspiciously precise, actually. Even allowing for the protagonist Gabriel’s fastidiousness, and how the narration hews to his mindset, the storytelling is just so clean. Examples:
Diction: “My wife here takes three mortal hours to dress herself,” says Gabriel. “Mortal” of course is an allusion to death, and how it undergirds the characters’ inner lives.
Irishness: Describing the outgoing, genuine Miss Ivors: “the large brooch which was fixed in the front of her collar bore on it an Irish device and motto”. There is implicit and explicit tension between Gabriel and other characters regarding his cosmopolitan attitudes and interests. The holiday party is a hearth-and-home affair reminding him in different ways of his Irish roots.
Music, and Intellectualism: “Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece, full of runs and difficult passages.” Mary, a member of the avant-garde younger generation, alienates herself just so from the party’s guests by playing a sophisticated piece.
Physical description: On oft-drunk Freddy Malins: “He had coarse features, a blunt nose, a convex and receding brow, tumid and protruded lips.” Notice how many blunt words this sentence uses — “coarse”, “blunt”, “convex”, “tumid”, “protruded” — to sell you on the frankness of Freddy’s character. I especially take issue with this sentence. It’s such a utilitarian all-at-once description of such a conventional kind, and it’s light on specifics. It’s more rhetoric than literature.
Foreshadowing, foreshadowing, foreshadowing!: “But as for Gretta there,” said Gabriel, “she’d walk home in the snow if she were let.” I mean, come on. The ending centers on Michael Furey’s doing just this (in the rain, anyway). So the gestures of the ending epiphany are explicitly broadcast.
This writing is all just so tidy that I accuse it of contrivance and fastidiousness. Joyce had all the techniques at his command so early in his career, but he applies them like implements, or wields them like arrows in a quiver, one after the other in discrete succession. I get the sense in his later writing that he didn’t care about tidiness. While Ulysses, for example, is every bit as calibrated and analytical as “The Dead”, the various techniques go into a wild kaleidoscope. And his descriptive gifts are most often put to describing, for the sake of richly populating a vibrant world. The real creative act isn’t the assimilation or organization of techniques — it’s pressing forward with the creation of an organic something, rather than an assemblage. Something that lives and breathes, something organic, something with a soul.
P.S. Let me give an example of where the analytical voice of the storytelling in “The Dead” is an animating force. Here is the crowd watching Mary Jane play: “Four young men, who had come from the refreshment-room to stand in the doorway at the sound of the piano, had gone away quietly in couples after a few minutes.”
Simple as that. Counting out the men, and their group behavior, lends an insidious undercurrent to their being there, I think. Their arrival and their departure are fleeting. Perhaps callous, perhaps shallowly intrigued by Mary Jane or her playing. None of the men is characterized; they simply lurk. This is the fluid motion of a party.
July 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
First post in two months since I’m only now settling down from traveling. I had one thought from seeing the movie Before Midnight with German subtitles. There’s a scene in that movie where the main male character, Jesse, is running an idea for his next book by friends. The idea is that people with different cognitive “disorders” would relate the same event, so that you have a common frame of reference for exploring different modes of experience. The movie before that in the trilogy, Before Sunset, also had a scene where Jesse describes the idea for his next book, that time to a bookstore audience at a reading he’s giving. That idea was to show a father looking back over his life in the span of a three-minute pop song, a sentimental stimulus, that his daughter is listening to and singing along to.
One, why would both movies include such similar scenes? Maybe it’s to showcase imagination and fancy and open-ended thoughts, which in the end comprise the texture of almost all of the three movies in the trilogy.
Two and more importantly, both ideas sounded pretty bad to me. They sound like passing trifles, the sort of idea I’d pick up for a half a moment in my head and put down just as quickly. They’re pretty lightweight — too light to support a book.
But then, all ideas sound terrible. If somebody told me they’d written a screenplay about a man who witnesses a murder outside his apartment while wheelchair-bound, I’d say it sounds hokey. And if they listened to me, there’d be no Rear Window. At best, an idea might inspire a safely tepid response, like if you pitched me a search engine that analyzes links instead of text — Google — which I wouldn’t oppose trying since, hey, it’s your time, not mine. And in his memoir, Dave Eggers recounts his relief on hearing a colleague’s terrible-sounding idea for a book.
This is why I think, and why I’ve written before, that artistry is indescribable as we commonly communicate. At least in my life, I can think of two or three occasions total when I’ve had even the chance to describe the nitty-gritty particulars of practice (not theory) that make a book good. But book reviews, cover letters, articles, and conversations operate at the level of the idea. And ideas are as good as gruel. Instead, since the voice and pulse of a work reveals itself in the space of a sentence, I recommend you pick one or two pages out of a book (from the middle if you like, it doesn’t have to be the beginning) and read briefly with an open mind. It’s tiring, like a few push-ups, but you only have to do a little bit at a time. Just imagine how much more helpful book reviews would be if they consisted solely of three randomly chosen paragraphs from the book.
January 19, 2013 § 1 Comment
Let’s pit the art forms against each other in a grisly melee. Life being what it is, I could’ve ended up with an interest in anything else: music, sports, motorcycles, whatever. But straws were drawn and I got books as my passion. How does that stack up against other possibilities?
In the interest of counting my blessings, I’ve thought about the advantages and disadvantages of being a reader, and of the literary art form. There’s so much to explore in life that even if you pursue all your interests with the deepest energy and effort you have, you’re only getting one or two flavors of creative enjoyment from your years. To love deeply is to love a sliver of things.
First, the bad stuff. Language is always changing, so compared to other art forms, like music, literature is thoroughly doomed to obscurity. Even if we optimistically assume the permanent dominance of the English language, your writing is not going to survive as it is. Shakespeare is only four centuries old, and even his work, the crown jewel of the canon, is heavily annotated today.
So all writing is inherently doomed in the long run. What else? Literature is obsolete, compared to movies or video games. The art form is pretty well established and even corporatized. It has no hold over the public imagination and — don’t underestimate this one — doesn’t gain the direct and exciting benefits of advancing technology the way music or movies do. It’s inherently more static than other art forms because of the simplicity of its means, words on a page.
But there are serious upsides. They just require a lot of work on the part of a writer or reader to manifest:
Anyone Can Write
You don’t need an early introduction to writing, the way violinists start at age three. You don’t need to gain entry into a conservatory or art school, you don’t need to be born into an upper-class life that sanctions frivolous pursuits, and you don’t need a formal education. Because writing is a skill acquired in some form by practically everyone, everyone has the foundation to explore the art form if they’re so inclined. And (this is a big one for me personally since my childhood was so scattershot) you can pick it up in your teens or twenties or thirties and it’s not too late to become a great reader or writer. So there’s less luck involved.
A Blanker Slate and a Freer Range
Music works within an abstract system of scales and harmony and what not. Painting is bound to color and line and space. Motorcycling follows the laws of physics. But an individual piece of writing sets its own rules for harmony or color or physics. It also sets its own logic, its own sense of time, and its own definitions of possible and impossible. In The Metamorphosis, a man may turn into a beetle. In In Search Of Lost Time, time is an imaginative process rather than an administrative or entropic one. In Coleridge’s poetry, Xanadu is vividly felt and real life is a hazy interruption. Who knows what the stuff of a real book may look or feel like, or how it may behave, or how it may delight? Who knows? That’s the fun of it. (That’s also what makes writing really hard, by the way. Why do you think the publishing industry and creative writing classes are so obsessed with restraint and convention? Because the threat of freedom is so large.)
Varieties Of Subtlety
The fine, nearly inexpressible subtleties and details that transform mere narration into an amazing imaginative act can take any shape. This is harder to explain than the previous two points. In Gogol’s writing, artistry is the digression that gives the backstory for the “freshly laid egg” in a simple analogy like “Her pretty face was as oval as a freshly laid egg.” In Dickens, artistry is the aggregation of soot-marks — on the windowsill, on the floor, in dirty London — before discovering a character has spontaneously combusted. Neither of these is a prescribed pattern — like, say, recitative in opera or a slice serve in tennis — but an artistic form newly and wholly created for the sake of a single book or passage or image. There is a dizzying and exhilarating exploratory quality to all great writing, since we are seeing what strangeness an individual mind can produce and still get away with under the humble guise of a “novel”.
There’s probably more, but I hope I’ve made enough points. If my points have anything unifying in them, it’s probably that, since language is and can be twisted to so many ends of so many minds, books occupy a special closeness to the dizzying variety and strangeness of thought and imagination.
January 5, 2013 § Leave a comment
Over the holiday I read two of Tolstoy’s novellas, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) and The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), and it’s amazing that one writer could produce two books that are so different only a few years apart. How does this happen?
First off, if you haven’t read them, Ilyich traces through the comfortable life and agonizing decay and death of a middlingly successful bourgeois. Toward the end there’s some message-y stuff about what it means to live a good life, but mostly the book is just a bracing description of a fall from comfort. Kreutzer, on the other hand, is a lurid lecture, where a man on a train tells the story of how he grew disillusioned in his materialist marriage and insanely jealous of his wife and her sexual flirtations with a violinist. (Note how Kreutzer uses a kind of old-fashioned device, the murder confession, like something from Poe.)
They really could not be further apart. Ilyich is like a reflective history and Kreutzer is a purely moralizing lecture via a grisly tale of murder. Ilyich is literature, and Kreutzer is pulp. (Grisly pulp has a tendency to be pretty heavy-handed moralizing in disguise, I think.) How — how? — could the same writer produce both?
I think the answer is in Tolstoy himself, who was his whole life torn between sensual indulgences (concentrated in his youth) and moral-spiritual seeking (concentrated in his old age). As Nabokov put it, these two deep aspects (an oxymoron, I know) of Tolstoy’s character could show luminously in the same book, say in Anna Karenina. Here’s Nabokov (Google Books link):
It is rather difficult to separate Tolstoy the preacher from Tolstoy the artist – it is the same deep slow voice, the same robust shoulder pushing up a cloud of visions or a load of ideas. What one would like to do, would be to kick the glorified soapbox from under his sandalled feet and then lock him up in a stone house on a desert island with gallons of ink and reams of paper – far away from the things, ethical and pedagogical, that diverted his attention from observing the way the dark hair curled above Anna’s white neck.
But these two novellas, Ilyich and Kreutzer, pretty well split these two Tolstoys like a prism. Or really, it’s like when Superman was split into good and evil selves in Superman III. Kreutzer is long on moralizing and low on artistry — the framing of the lecture as a murder confession is crude, and the writing is all framed in heavy-handed abstractions rather than living breathing details. I’ve bolded the abstractions I spotted in a representative passage:
We did not then comprehend that this love and hatred were one and the same animal passion, only with opposite poles. It would have been horrible to live in this way if we had realized our situation; but we did not realize it and did not see it. In this lies the salvation, as well as the punishment, of a man — that, when he is living irregularly, he may blind himself so as not to see the wretchedness of his situation.
And Ilyich ends with a pretty benign bit of “what matters in life?” philosophizing, but at its best, the way it captures conversations, and gestures, and states of mind, is breathtaking. Here’s a scene of mourning foiled by the furniture in the room:
As he sat down on the ottoman Pyotr Ivanovich recalled how, in decorating the room, Ivan Ilyich had consulted him about this pink cretonne with the green leaves. The whole room was crammed with furniture and knick-knacks, and as the widow stepped past the table to seat herself on the sofa, she entangled the lace of her black shawl in a bit of carving. Pyotr Ivanovich rose slightly to untangle it, and as he did the springs of the ottoman, freed of pressure, surged and gave him a little shove.
Everything is vivid — the pink cretonne, the widow’s black lace, the springiness of the ottoman. The composition of a quiet scene with these bright and noisy domestic details is absolutely masterly. This is Tolstoy the artist.
You look at these books on, say, Goodreads (here’s Kreutzer and here’s Ilyich), and they’ve got similar ratings despite being on totally different planes and having totally different relationships to fiction and imagination. That’s the danger of reputation or canon or authority. A Tolstoy book is not simply a Tolstoy book. You have to sit down read the books, and understand their what and why and how. The problem is, when you want to see what all the fuss is about, you can never know if you’ll find something substantial or something easily fussed over.
December 9, 2012 § Leave a comment
I hadn’t read Hamlet since high school so I picked it up again recently to see what it’s really like. In high school, I thought (and/or was taught — I can’t remember) that it was a grand existential meditation on life and human nature and all its cuts and bruises, and on the brutality and madness of the world. This time, I found that Hamlet was a kind of jester or actor keeping a distance between himself and his friends and family by playing at madness. Hamlet is about one big elaborate put-on!
I think even the play’s purported existential centerpiece, the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, is a put-on, a kind of cosmic joke or sarcasm. Here’s my case. When Hamlet enters, Claudius and Polonius have just exited, and they’ve left behind Ophelia as a kind of bait to coax out some honesty from Hamlet. So Hamlet, in the thick of his mad angsty act, has stumbled into the middle of a plot whose mechanism is Ophelia’s innocence. In this scene, candor and plainness can’t be trusted.
Hamlet’s speech begins unprompted, apropos of nothing, and isn’t tangibly related to any action in the play at that point. It’s spacious, undirected brooding, the type employed by somebody who wants their loud sighs to be overheard. Everything in it is abstraction and pomp: “a sea of troubles”, “a consummation / Devoutly to be wish’d” (an odd sentiment for Hamlet to be serious about, since he has work to do against Claudius), “The undiscovered country”, etc. Why would Hamlet talk about abstract woe when he’s made his specific grievances with his life clear to himself and to his friend Horatio?
Then there’s the ending of the monologue. Do you remember how it goes? This is the part I love about it — it ends mid-line with Hamlet interrupting himself to address Ophelia. Fittingly, the last bit of the soliloquy is about ambitions waning into dithering:
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. — Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.
All we have at the end is a dash, so we don’t know if Hamlet is genuinely surprised by Ophelia’s presence (she’s been deliberately placed in the open with a book) or — as I suspect — that he’s turning to her as the natural culmination of his passionate fit of words. Then there is a mild plea for quiet (“Soft you now”) — but that plea is itself theatrical! It might be directed at himself, or slyly at an imaginary audience, or at the real audience, but it’s stage direction. Finally, see how the two of them transition easily to appropriate manners:
Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day?
I humbly thank you; well, well, well.
This is the kind of mood swing between characters that you only see in a play. I think Hamlet is continuing his put-on with Ophelia, and that the “To be or not to be” soliloquy is another jest, another play-within-a-play, in Hamlet.
Like I said, all we have to characterize Hamlet’s reaction to Ophelia is a dash and “Soft you now”, so we can’t reach a definite conclusion about his intentions in his soliloquy. But this is the evidence I see in the story that Hamlet’s great philosophizing is a very shrewd ploy.
November 18, 2012 § Leave a comment
All art is charged with mystery — an indivisible strain of magic or irrationality or the unanswerable, what Keats described as “negative capability” — but that doesn’t excuse readers or writers from exercising rigor in their work. The universe is mysterious too, but not because it’s portentous or hollow or opaque. Rather, the universe is mysterious precisely because we can look more and more closely at it, with greater and greater rigor, to understand better and better its mechanics. This is what leads us to its wonder.
So it is with human-made universes, too. You can’t understand the fundamental contradictions and ambiguities of a work without prying deeply into it. But in the practical world of books and authors and critics and readers, everyone wants to lay claim to possessing or discerning the artistic brand of mystery. My sense from the criticism I’ve read (professional or scholarly or amateur, the distinctions are insignificant) is that it’s easy to talk about the ineffable or the sublime because practically everybody gets a pass on that stuff. Who would dare take you to task for a poor treatment of the unknowable?
But there’s real mystery, and there’s pseudo or hollow or false mystery. And I think the modern sense of the world’s complexity and insanity — and the prevalence of fuzzy conformist talk about books — breeds, like a damp cupboard, a lot of fusty talk about mystery in writing.
Let me give examples — one of false mystery, one of the real thing.
Here’s a passage from the very beginning of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. (I like picking on McCarthy’s writing because he enjoys a very rare literary kind of renown. There’s only so much of that kind of renown to go around, so I think it’s important to mind its allocation.)
At fourteen he runs away. He will not see again the freezing kitchenhouse in the predawn dark. The firewood, the washpots. He wanders west as far as Memphis, a solitary migrant upon that flat and pastoral landscape. Blacks in the fields, lank and stooped, their fingers spiderlike among the bolls of cotton. A shadowed agony in the garden. Against the sun’s declining figures moving in the slower dusk across a paper skyline. A lone dark husbandman pursuing mule and harrow down the rainblown bottomland toward night.
A lot of words are thrown together for portentous effect, and because of these short phrases a grand hazy stateliness is attributed to McCarthy’s writing. (Example: “The phrases and clauses in that sentence, written without punctuation, add up to a kind of rushing prose, seemingly spontaneous, but highly crafted. Such rhythms can be almost biblical in their power.”)
What happens when you look closely? I submit the thing falls apart and we see a core that’s not sublime, but ridiculous. When McCarthy writes that the protagonist is “a solitary migrant upon that flat and pastoral landscape”, he’s giving a cue that we should take the mythic power of “that” landscape for granted. How can it be both “flat” and “pastoral”? Pastoral indicates lushness — it’s a sentimental term, and it doesn’t go with barrenness. And a phrasing like “lone dark husbandman” is cliche. This mystery isn’t rigorous! It’s taken off the shelf. So calling it mysterious is too generous. It’s pompous.
On the other hand, I’ve been reading Gogol’s Dead Souls, and I’ve found the whole thing is a grand jest of a book where the narrator is spinning a tale he doesn’t totally know and indulging in digressions that aren’t totally relevant in a story world that’s capricious toward reader, protagonist, and narrator alike. In the marrow of the writing there’s a very essential frivolity. For example, here’s a man going home to his wife after visiting a fair and running from an argument with his brother-in-law:
The brother-in-law went on repeating his excuses for some time, without noticing that he had long ago got into his barouche, driven through the gates, and was surrounded by nothing but empty fields. One cannot help thinking that his wife did not hear about the fair in much detail.
The writing itself is plain and matter-of-fact but a Gogolian strangeness prevails in its substance. I like the transition from the facts of the conversation to a sudden surprising emptiness, via simply getting into his carriage. And see how the narrator doesn’t even know what happens next — he replaces that gap in knowledge with a musing speculation. You see that kind off off-kilter narration throughout the whole book. That is fundamentally how Dead Souls is written, and it works in the plain facts of the storytelling.
This is not a flashy example of mystery — if it were flashy, it wouldn’t really be mysterious — but I mean to demonstrate the organic strangeness and the organic gaps in Gogol’s writing, and how they’re used to substantial effect. When you read an entire book written to its core in this shifting, musing, non-omniscient way, it’s an experience like none other.
In these posts, I pick examples out of thin air and I assess them very briefly and selectively, so you should look into these examples for yourself if you care. My point, as always, is not to accept the apparent or conventional virtues of a piece of writing, but to try to respond to its native strangeness from the inside out.