Monday, November 12, 2007

Tangentially Connected Things (with apologies to Sei Shonagon)

1 Maybe Sei Shonagon's ghost was flitting around the Internets this weekend, because I wasn't the only one writing about her. While I used her words primarily as window dressing for a post about Iris Murdoch, selfdivider actually wrote well about her and her Pillow Book. The opening of his post is irresistible:
I have no doubt that Walter Benjamin, in his previous incarnation, was a Japanese woman named Sei Shonagon, born in 966 AD, serving in the court of Empress Teishi.

2 If you've not read The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, I can recommend it wholeheartedly. It's a real treat, the occasional diary-like entry about her life at the Imperial court mixing with more general appreciations of the details (and frustrations) of everyday life. Her greatest form--and what causes selfdivider to link her with Benjamin--is the list. On Saturday I mentioned in passing her list of "Pleasing Things," but that list is so ordinary as to be unrepresentative. She's often far more unexpected in her choice of categories--as in this one, for example:
Squalid Things

The back of a piece of embroidery.

The inside of a cat's ear.

A swarm of mice, who still have no fur, when they come wriggling out of their nest.

The seams of a fur robe that has not yet been lined.

Darkness in a place that does not give the impression of being very clean.

A rather unattractive woman who looks after a large brood of children.

A woman who falls ill and remains unwell for a long time. In the mind of her lover, who is not particularly devoted to her, she must appear rather squalid.

Or this one:
Things That Should Be Short

A piece of thread when one wants to sew something in a hurry.

A lamp stand.

The hair of a woman of the lower classes should be neat and short.

The speech of a young girl.
There's an intimacy to Sei Shonagon's self-presentation in The Pillow Book that's stunning, born not from the revelation of private details but from the single strong sensibility that informs every entry. As with Hazlitt or, to a lesser degree, Montaigne, I close the book feeling as if I've met a person; to read it is, in a way that is astonishing considering that more than a millennium separates her from us, to feel that one knows its writer.

3 Speaking of selfdivider, I meant to link to his blog months ago when he posted a translation of an interview with Haruki Murakami that he found in a Korean magazine. If you're a Murakami fan--and especially if, like me, you find yourself responding to his cryptic clarity with an effort to divine larger authorial statements--it's well worth your time.

4 In my post Saturday about Iris Murdoch, I mentioned how much I like her first novel, Under the Net, largely because of its energy and the love of London that comes through in Murdoch's detailed descriptions. In one of the interviews collected in the book that prompted that post, From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch, Murdoch talks with her husband, critic John Bayley, and others at a 1986 symposium on her work, Murdoch explains that she would like to think that she's been getting better at her craft over the years, then says,
Someone told me this morning that they thought Under the Net was the best one, which I found very distressing!
In response, John Bayley points out one of the best aspects of that novel, the sense it gives throughout of being utterly contingent, of the possibility that the ultimate resolution of the plot could take any of a number of forms:
BAYLEY: Curiously I think Under the Net is the only one of your novels where you can feel that the novelist doesn't know how it's going to end, if you see what I mean. Actually, this is an important criterion about novels, historically speaking, that a great many novelists did write quite genuinely not knowing how to end the thing; when novels came out in installments, of course, it was quite common. I may be quite wrong about Under the Net; you probably did know how it was going to end, but it has a kind of freshness that is very mysterious, and that we strangely associate with something that is not planned.

MURDOCH: Well, yes, I did know how Under the Net was going to end. But I think this is a matter of style. It is quite an interesting point, isn't it, that some novels can seem like that, and it may be better if you have that feeling. I mean there can be a sense of too much presence of the author, a feeling that the author is going to bring the thing through to the end, come what may, in a particular way.
How could I--a partisan of the baggy and organic, a lover of the carefully arranged formlessness of Penelope Fitzgerald's best novels, a raving fan of Moby-Dick--do anything but agree? (And yet I love form, too, whether it's the jeweled perfection of The Great Gatsby or the interpenetrating circles of John Crowley's Aegypt cycle. At least I've never pretended to be consistent.)

5 Since Iris Murdoch and Jane Austen wrestled for my reading attention this weekend, it seems right to take note of something Murdoch told Simon Price in 1984:
I think my two favorite characters in literature are Achilles and Mr. Knightley in Emma. Perhaps that represents two sides of one's character, or something, but I find that I identify with both of them.
Knightley is easy to understand: he's a strong, interesting, good character. (Side note: though I know I long ago offered evidence that I was never a teenage girl, the fact that I find him far more compelling than Darcy surely provides more, right?) The choice of Achilles on the other hand--rage personified,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses
--surprises, even perplexes me. What did Murdoch see there to identify with? His rage? His ambition, which caused him to willingly choose an early death rather than forego the only eternal life he could imagine, that of lasting fame for his exploits?

As an even-tempered, unambitious sort, I've always had a bit of trouble with Achilles; for me Achilles--and the values he represents--serves as a reminder of how distant Homer's world was from ours. His values, his cares, are almost as far from mine as is possible to imagine. Yet at the same time, I've always felt an affinity with Odysseus. Sure, he's possibly the least trustworthy person in literature, but nearly every subterfuge is entered into with the same goal: keeping him alive another day. While I'd like to think I'm more scrupulous, it would require an inappropriate level of self-regard to think that I wouldn't appreciate some of Odysseus's tactics were I to find myself in similar situations.

6 All of which leads me to a larger question: just who are my favorite characters in literature? Oddly enough, I hadn't thought about that question, really, until I read about Murdoch's choices. Unlike her, I think if I put together a list it won't consist of characters with whom I particularly identify; rather--like Odysseus--they'd be characters who I can't stop thinking about, who seem forever capable of revealing new surprises. So to add to Odysseus, here's a list that came more or less off the top of my head during tonight's run:
Bjartur from Independent People

Tess from Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Lieutenant Amanda Turck from James Gould Cozzens's Guard of Honor

Bartleby the Scrivener

Jayber Crow, from Wendell Berry's books about the Port William Membership

King David

Barnby, Uncle Giles, and Tuffy Weedon from A Dance to the Music of Time

First Sergeant Milt Warden from From Here to Eternity

Lyra from the His Dark Materials trilogy

Sir Lancelot

Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky from Anna Karenina

Huckleberry Finn

Philip Marlowe

Mrs. Aubrey from Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows

Rose Ryder from John Crowley's Aegypt series

And who are yours?

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