Tuesday, February 27, 2007

One last post on Thomas and Emma Hardy, and Jude

I'm worn out from working the election today, but nothing puts a tired mind to rest like forcing it to make some sentences, so here are a few last thoughts for the week about Thomas Hardy.

1) In the past two posts, I've written about Jude the Obscure, agreeing with Claire Tomalin that at points in the novel Hardy's characters suffer tragedies so extreme they les the result of blind, uncaring fate than the effects of a willfully malevolent god--or, in this case, a willfully cruel author. "See--see how bad life can be?" he seems to be saying, but the very intensity of the suffering undercuts our willingness to believe his assertion--it feels, as Nick Hornby has put it before when talking about a different author, as if Hardy has his thumb on the scale.

Anthony Powell, in reviewing J.I.M. Stewart's biography of Hardy for the Daily Telegraph back in 1971 quoted T. S. Eliot saying,
What again and again introduces a note of falsity into Hardy's novels is that he will leave nothing to nature, but will always be giving one last turn of the screw himself, and of his motives for doing I have the gravest suspicion.
In this case I think Eliot is being too general. I have no trouble believing the suffering in Hardy's other great novels (Tess of the D'Urbervilles, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Far from the Madding Crowd); once the plot necessities of Victorian serial publication are allowed for, the events of all seem fully within the realm of possibility, potential outcomes of the very real human emotions and ambitions that animate their characters.

After all this complaining, I should say that Jude is still well worth reading, if only for the character of Sue (which Powell calls "astonishingly well expressed") and for Hardy's ability to convey, in the early portions of the book, the palpable ache of Jude's ambitions. As you might guess from how much I've written about it, it's a hard book to forget.

2) The same collection of Anthony Powell's reviews from which I drew the Eliot quote above includes a review of the memoir written by Hardy's much-maligned first wife, Emma, Some Recollections, which despite her lack of literary training is fairly well-regarded. While Powell admits that she does display talent and a "certain gift for appreciation of what was happening round her," he also says,
One can see how captivated Hardy must have been by her; at the same time, what an appalling bore she must have become in middle age. Her egotism was obviously tremendous. What appeared imaginative energy was mostly an immense concentration on herself.
Even if we cut Emma Hardy significant slack to compensate for Hardy's failures as a husband (of attention, of care, of understanding) and for the ill effects of the intensely circumscribed world in which Victorian women were forced to dwell, she still comes across as an inherent problem. Her deep insecurity and outsized sense of self-importance seem a toxic combination. In later years she took to reminding guests of the gap in social standing between her family and Hardy's; she also frequently went so far as to talk of his novels as "their work" and even to hint at coauthorship of important works. It is easy to see why Hardy drew away from her; easy as well to see how that drawing away could easily lead to more of the very behavior by Emma that troubled the marriage in the first place.

Powell, in a 1979 review of Denys Kay-Robinson's The First Mrs. Thomas Hardy says
Kay-Robinson thinks Emma Hardy has been unfairly treated, and one of the aims of his book is to set right the balance. He does convince the reader that Hardy was very much in love when the first marriage took place, and no one would disagree with the view that Hardy was a difficult husband. At the same time, as the list of witnesses to the first Mrs. Hardy's shortcomings are assembled--some of them to a certain degree confused--we begin to wonder whether, if Emma Hardy is to be presented in a sympathetic light, it would have been easier to prove the case without calling on so many people who found her tiresome.

For all that, when Emma died, Hardy embarked almost instantly on a lengthy set of eulogizing poems, ones that Claire Tomalin regards as his best. Those very poems, and the reborn (or reimagined) love they expressed, had the perverse effect of greatly damaging, at its very outset, Hardy's marriage to his second wife, who had been waiting patiently in the wings for Emma's passing.

If nothing else, Hardy's marriages remind us that few people are ever really simple, and that a marriage not one's own is perhaps best thought of as, like L. P. Hartley said about the past, "another country. They do things differently there."

3) From Barbara Pym's diary, the entry for 20 May, 1977:
Seeing a handsome Dorset woman at a petrol pump I thought a Hardy heroine of today might follow such an occupation. Tess for instance.

4) From a letter from Nancy Mitford to Evelyn Waugh, 26 December 1945:
Uncle Matthew has been here, deep in my book. He says he once read a book that ended badly and he hasn't ever been the same since--it was called Tess of the D'Urbervilles. This is news to all of us and very interesting news too.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Claire Tomalin on Thomas Hardy

Claire Tomalin's Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (2003) is, hands down, the best biography I've read. In choosing Pepys as her subject, Tomalin set herself a tremendously difficult task--after all, how can any biography top the story Pepys himself tells?
29 June 1663
In Westminster Hall fell in talk with Mrs Lane and after great talk that she never went abroad with any man as she used heretofore to do, I with one word got her to go with me and to meet me at the further Rhenish wine-house--where I did give her a lobster and do so towse her and feel her all over, making her believe how fair and good a skin she had; and endeed, she hath a very white thigh and leg, but monstrous fat. When weary, I did give over, and somebody having seen some of our dalliance, called aloud in the street, "Sir, why do you kiss the gentlewoman so?" and flung a stone at the window--which vexed me--but I believe they could not see my towsing her; and so we broke up and went out the back way, without being observed, I think.
Pepys is an unparalleled narrator of his own life, yet Tomalin's biography is full of verve, so affecting that his death at the close of the book feels like the death of a friend.

Her biography of Thomas Hardy is not quite as powerful, but the fault lies, I judge, less with Tomalin than with Hardy, who, for all his frequent charm, has little of Pepys's self-involved liveliness--but who among us does? Tomalin regardless brings her formidable biographical skills to bear, and despite the frequent assertions by Hardy's friends that he was essentially inscrutable, she succeeds in creating a convincing portrait. Her Hardy is a man whose complicated internalization--and overcoming--of early disappointments fueled a lifetime of tremendous achievements, achievements which were perpetually undercut by a deep-rooted melancholy and doubt. Trapped in an unexpectedly unhappy marriage, resentful his whole life of the class structure that blighted his youth, and unable to will a belief in a higher purpose or eternal reward, Hardy as revealed by Tomalin is frequently a sad, even sometimes pathetic figure. But at the same time, we marvel along with her at Hardy's unflagging curiosity and drive, and she never lets us lose sight of the remarkable talent that makes his life worth remembering.

Tomalin's greatest gift as a biographer is her wide-ranging sympathy. Though realizing that our knowledge can never be perfect, she really wants to understand everyone's reasons, see everyone's point of view. Her inclination is to give each person the benefit of the doubt, but she doesn't flinch from judging when the evidence calls for it; that openness to the multiplicities of motive and feeling are what give her biographies the full roundedness of real life. She's the biographer we all should hope to have.

Her treatment of Hardy's first wife, Emma, whose personal oddity was commented upon in letters and diaries by nearly everyone who met her, is typical of her approach:
[Edmund] Gosse's letter to his wife Nellie included a careful comment on Emma: "She means to be very kind," he wrote. Hardy was too observant not to notice that his friend was sometimes rather at a loss in his attempts at conversation with his wife. To find that Emma's zest for life, so much prized by him during their wooing, was not so attractive to others, and that her charm fell flat, was upsetting. Of course she was middle aged now. She no longer wore her glorious hair over her shoulders in curls, her strong features were settling into heaviness, and her talk sometimes strayed from the point and followed its own track in a way that had once seemed delightful but now sometimes disconcerting.
Hasn't everyone known someone like that, someone just a little off--or felt like that themselves at times? And doesn't Tomalin's portrait elicit sympathy for Hardy? But then she continues:
Feeling unappreciated brings out the worst in everyone, and when people failed to warm to Emma she became more difficult. She had lost her hope of children, hardly saw her own family and was suspicious of his. A letter this year from her friend in Sturminster, Mrs. Dashwood, also reminded her of her failed literary amibitions: "I hope your stories will emerge one after another and astonish the literary world, they have been concocting in your head long enough and should now see the light . . . When will you and Mr. Hardy spend the day with us? You have not visited this gay city for a long time, and ought to renew your acquaintance once with it." Emma could say nothing of any publication prospects, alas, and there was no visit to the gay city of Sturminster. Gosse's friendship with Hardy was strong enough to include Emma, but he never warmed to her in her own right.
Though our sympathies don't shift completely--Emma is, after all, clearly a source of real difficulty for everyone--Tomalin's emotional contextualization of her behavior leavens our judgment; it is a courtesy Tomalin extends to everyone.

In Friday night's post I mentioned how apt I found Tomalin's take on Jude the Obscure (1895); the following passage gives a good sense of how sharp her literary criticism can be. She quotes Hardy essentially abdicating responsibility for his characters' sufferings, saying that he is only reflecting the darkness of fate and circumstance. Then she argues:
Hardy's defense is made weaker because there are other examples in his fiction of people suffering from exceptionally bad luck--luck so bad that it looks as though it has been willed, by the gods, or fate, or possibly by the author. For example, when the young Jude falls into despair at the difficulty of learning Latin and Greek, "he wished he had never seen a book, that he might never see another, that he had never been born." This is a reasonable account of a sensitive boy's reaction to severe disappointment, but Hardy continues. "Somebody might have come along that way who would have asked him his trouble, and might have cheered him . . . But nobody did come, because nobody does." I have put the last words in italics because this is not a true account of life. Hardy is not only coercing his plot, he is generalizing falsely. There are times when nobody comes, but there are also times when somebody does come. For example . . . a good many people had come along [for Hardy himself]. Jude is not Hardy, of course, but in so far as he represents Hardy's own unfulfilled wish to go to a university, he is put through a much worse experience than Hardy ever went through. This is part of what made even Hardy's friend Gosse ask in his review, "What has Providence done to Mr Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?"
Most of my thinking about literature ultimately boils down to that question--is this a true representation of life? Thus I view generalizing falsely as one of the greatest offenses an author can commit, and Tomalin the critic is a deeply congenial spirit. The criticism of Hardy's novels in Thomas Hardy not only managed to make me think afresh about them, it woke me as well to his poetry, of which I'd read little. Tightly rhymed, flawlessly rhythmic, with a strong spine of thought, as Tomalin puts it, in each poem, it hadn't impressed me when I was twenty. I was looking for something less formal--Hardy's poetry felt dated, not adventurous enough. But I suppose the list of things that don't impress us when we're twenty are extensive; if we have the good fortune to live long enough, maybe eventually they're no longer even embarrassing.

This is where I take advantage of the fact that this is a blog, rather than a newspaper or magazine. I should end this with a summation, a statement about Hardy or the biography. But instead, because we've had thick, wet snow all day here--the sort through which you splash in the morning and slip at night--and I've spent many an hour in my chair by the window watching wet, puffed-up juncos and finches eat thistle from our feeder, I'll end instead with Hardy's "Snow in the Suburbs" (1925):
Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:
Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward when
Meeting those meandering down they turn and descend again.
The palings are glued together like a wall,
And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall.
A sparrow enters the tree,
Whereon immediately
A snow-lump thrice his own slight size
Descends on him and showers his head and eye
And overturns him,
And near inurns him,
And lights on a nether twig, when its brush
Starts off a volley of other lodging lumps with a rush.
The steps are a blanched slope,
Up which, with feeble hope,
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;
And we take him in.

Friday, February 23, 2007

On the train with Thomas Hardy

As I was on the train today on the way home, reading Claire Tomalin's Thomas Hardy (2006), I noticed that a woman across the aisle was reading Hardy's final novel, Jude the Obscure (1895). Though most of Hardy's novels feature characters grimly struggling against an implacable, impersonal fate that seems determined to thwart their every ambition, Jude takes such cosmic pessimism much further. Too far, in my view, though I won't deny that it's an unforgettable book. I recently told a coworker that reading Jude is like engaging in self-flagellation; I learned today that Tomalin disagrees, but only about who is delivering the beating: "Reading Jude is like being hit in the face over and over again." She continues, saying it is
a novel of unrelenting power and gloom. If the poetic dramas of the Elizabethan and Jacobean writers come to mind where horror is part of the fabric, we should remember that Hardy said he aimed to keep his narratives "as close to poetry in their subject as the conditions would allow," and that he sometimes spoke of his poems coming to him. . . . So perhaps we can believe that the worst parts of Jude and Sue's story also came partly unbidden, out of the place inside him where the wounds made by grief and loss and humiliation and failure had never ceased to ache.

But I've gotten distracted; that's not what came to mind on the train this evening. At that point, I found myself thinking about how odd it was that two of us were engaged with Hardy at the same time, more than a hundred years after Jude's publication, and wondering how many people in Chicago tonight are reading one of Hardy's novels. What would Hardy--who thought of himself not as a novelist, but as a poet who wrote novels to pay the bills--make of the fact that his novels are still read and loved today? And, given his emotional inscrutability (his close friend Edmund Gosse called him a sphinx) what would he think of being the subject of a such a detailed, thoughtful biography?

These are old questions, and unanswerable, but I still find them compelling. Authors can't avoid thinking of posterity, of course, and some are presumptuous enough to assume their works will remain of interest. Though Hardy knew he was a good writer, and he did take care that a uniform edition of his works be published in his lifetime (though that was arguably as much a business as an artistic decision) I doubt he was quite so self-confident as to imagine my spending so much time wondering about him this week eighty-odd years after his death.

In his poem "Afterwards" (1917), below, Hardy reveals that he did think on such things. However, at least in this verse the question of the sturdiness of the memory of his actual personality stands in for, if it doesn't fully replace, the question of artistic survival:
When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
"He was a man who used to notice such things"?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
"To him this must have been a familiar sight."

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, "He strove that such innocent creatures should
come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone."

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand
at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
"He was one who had an eye for such mysteries"?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
"He hears it not now, but used to notice such things"?

I hope it would gladden Hardy's notoriously gloomy heart to know that his writing has infected me so deeply that, confronted with a field in autumn or a quiet forest, yes, I do often find myself thinking of him. His words have insured that his person has survived; I look at such sights, colored by his words, and know the joy they would bring him.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

On the gods, their agents, and their doings, part two

From Ryunosuke Akutagawa's "The Spider Thread" (1918), collected in Rashamon and Seventeen Other Stories
And now, children, let me tell you a story about Lord Buddha Shakyamuni.

It begins one day as He was strolling alone in Paradise by the banks of the Lotus Pond. The blossoms on the pond were like perfect white pearls, and from their golden centers wafted forth a never-ending fragrance wonderful beyond description. I think it must have been morning in paradise.

From Virgil's Aeneid, Book Four, Robert Fagles's translation (2006)
"I . . . you have done me
so many kindnesses, and you could count them all.
I shall never deny what you deserve, my queen,
never regret my memories of Dido, now while I
can recall myself and draw the breath of life.
. . . .
And now the messenger of the gods--I swear it,
by your life and mine--dispatched by Jove himself,
has brought me firm commands through the racing winds.
With my own eyes I saw him, clear, in broad daylight,
moving through your gates. With my own ears I drank
his message in. Come, stop inflaming us
both with your appeals. I set sail for Italy--
all against my will."

Deuteronomy 4:27-31,
And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples and you shall be left men few in number among the nations where the Lord will drive you. And you shall worship there their gods that are human handiwork, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. And you shall search for the Lord your God from there, and you shall find him when you seek Him with all your heart and with all your being. When you are in straits and all these things find you in time to come, you shall turn back to the Lord your God and heed His voice. For the Lord your God is a merciful god. He will not let you go and will not destroy you and will not forget your fathers’ covenant that He swore to them.

From Justin Marozzi’s Tamerlane (2004)
When reports reached the Turk of this lightning manoeuvre, he was “seized with panic as though it were the day of resurrection and bit his hands with grief and remorse and roared and howled and burning with the fire of anger was almost suffocated and abandoned rest and sleep.”

From Pearl S. Buck's Imperial Woman (1956)
Since snow had not fallen in the late winter when the wheatfields needed snow as fertilizer, the gods must be persuaded by three days of public reproach, the priests carrying the gods out from their pleasant temples to survey the dry and frozen fields.

From Garry Wills’s What Jesus Meant (2006)
The angel has to reassure [Mary]: “Have no fear, Mary, this is because you have found favor with God.” Did she know already how dangerous is such favor? God’s chosen people are commonly chosen to suffer. Of Jesus in particular, John Henry Newman wrote: “All who came near him more or less suffered by approaching him, just as if pain and trouble went out of him, as some precious virtue for the good of their souls.”

From James Jones’s From Here to Eternity (1951)
“That’s right,” Malloy said. “But listen. A guy named Spinoza wrote a sentence once. He said: Because a man loves God he must not expect God to love him in return. Theres a lot in that, in lots of ways. I don’t use passive resistance for what I expect it will get me. I dont expect it to pay me back any more than it ever has. That isn’t the point. If that was the point, I’d of given it up years ago as a flop.”

From Garry Wills’s What Jesus Meant (2006)
Jesus’ followers have the obligation that rests on all men and women to seek justice based on the dignity of every human being. That is the goal of politics, of “the things that belong to Caesar.” But heaven’s reign makes deeper and broader demands, the demands not only of justice but of love.

From John Mortimer’s Quite Honestly (2006)
“How did God come into it?”

“Well, he didn’t really. Not when Robert was a vicar. In those days he seemed to take God for granted. But as soon as he became a bishop—I don’t know, I suppose because it was a step up and Robert felt responsible for God and treated him more as an equal. Anyway, he began to find fault with him or question anything he did. Of course, it’s got a lot worse since President Bush. He can’t understand how God would have anything to do with the man.”

On the gods, their agents, and their doings, part one

From Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar: Life of a Colossus (2006):
Among many other things, the Flamen Dialis [Priest of Jupiter] was not allowed to take an oath, to pass more than three nights away from the city, or to see a corpse, an army on campaign, or anyone working on a festival day. In addition he could not ride a horse, have a knot anywhere within his house or even in his clothing, and could not be presented with a table without food since he was never to appear to be in want. Furthermore, he could only be shaved or have his hair cut by a slave using a bronze knife—surely another indication of antiquity—and the cut hair, along with other things such as nail clippings, had to be buried in a secret place. The flamen wore a special hat called the apex, which appears to have been made from fur, had a point on top and flaps over the ears. These restrictions made a normal senatorial career impossible.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil," collected in Twice-Told Tales (1837)
Mr. Hooper had the reputation of a good preacher, but not an energetic one: he strove to win his people heavenward, by mild persuasive influences, rather than to drive them thither, by the thunders of the Word. The sermon which he now delivered, was marked by the same characteristics of style and manner, as the general series of his pulpit oratory. But there was something, either in the sentiment of the discourse itself, or in the imagination of the auditors, which made it greatly the most powerful effort that they had ever heard from their pastor's lips. It was tinged, rather more darkly than usual, with the gentle gloom of Mr. Hooper's temperament. The subject had reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them. A subtle power was breathed into his words. Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl, and the man of hardened breast, felt as if the preacher had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought. Many spread their clasped hands on their bosoms. There was nothing terrible in what Mr. Hooper said; at least, no violence; and yet, with every tremor of his melancholy voice, the hearers quaked. An unsought pathos came hand in hand with awe. So sensible were the audience of some unwonted attribute in their minister, that they longed for a breath of wind to blow aside the veil, almost believing that a stranger's visage would be discovered, though the form, gesture, and voice were those of Mr. Hooper.

From James Boswell’s London Journal, 5 December 1762:
I then went to St. George’s Church, where I heard a good sermon on the prophets testifying of Jesus Christ. I was upon honour much disposed to be a Christian. Yet I was rather cold in my devotions. The Duchess of Grafton attracted my eyes rather too much.

From David Riggs’s The World of Christopher Marlowe (2004)
[In 1558,] after five years of Roman Catholicism, at a time when existing members of the clergy were ravaged by disease and religious upheaval, suitable candidates for the incoming Protestant ministry proved hard to come by. Matthew Parker, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, hastily ordained a multitude of priests, including the tailor William Sweeting, who were unqualified for their new vocation. Church authorities discovered that the impoverished Reverend Sweeting was incapable of preaching even one sermon a year, yet this fact did not deter them from adding a nearby parish church to his ministry.

From J. F. Powers’s “A Losing Game,” collected in The Complete Stories of J. F. Powers (2000)
Father Fabre, coming from the bathroom, stopped and knocked at the pastor’s door—something about the door had said, Why not? No sound came from the room, but the pastor had a ghostly step and there he was, opening the door an inch, giving his new curate a glimpse of the green eyeshade he wore and of the chaos in which he dwelt. Father Fabre saw the radio in the unmade bed, the correspondence, the pamphlets, the folding money, and all the rest of it—what the bishop, on an official visitation, barging into the room and then hurriedly backing out, had passed off to the attending clergy as “a little unfinished business.”

“Yes? Yes?”

“How about that table you promised me?”

The pastor just looked at him.

“The one for my room, remember? Something to put my typewriter on.”

“See what I can do.”

The pastor had said that before. Father Fabre said, “I’m using the radiator now.”

The pastor nodded, apparently granting him permission to continue using it.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Looking up at me from the covers of the three books on the table next to my reading chair in the front room are the faces of Julian MacLaren-Ross, Thomas Hardy, and Patricia Highsmith.

Julian MacLaren-Ross, who had a pathological hatred of being photographed, apparently decided to camp it up for the photo that was chosen for Paul Wiletts's biography. He's barely in focus, leaning forward a bit and keeping a long cigarette holder in place with his left hand; his look is coy and over-the-top mysterious. He's clearly playing a role, but since so much of his life seemed to be playing one part or another, I suppose it's possible that this is no more campy or false than any other moment for him. Who knows how seriously he was taking this photo shoot? Regardless, the impression is one of goofy insouciance with just an dollop of true mysteriousness and reserve, utterly appropriate to MacLaren-Ross. [Aside to Spider-Man fans: he has Harry Osborn hair.]

Thomas Hardy, meanwhile, is pictured on the jacket of Claire Tomalin's biography staring into space, wearing a dark homburg, a high-collared shirt and tie, and a tweed jacket and waistcoat. He is an old man and his bristly moustache looks a bit formidable--which is what a fan of his novels might expect him to be--but his light eyes and the gentle lines of his face belie that. When he was a young man, he sported a long, full beard like Dickens, which had the effect of making him look a bit stuffy. Hardy's older face, on the other hand, gives a sense that he is a kindly, caring, generous man troubled by what he has seen in a long life. The workings of fate can be so cruel in his novels that the gentle face surprises me a bit--though perhaps it shouldn't, since the sympathy in his novels lies always with the sufferers. Presumably Tomalin's biography will tell me whether I'm reading this photo correctly.

On the cover of her Selected Stories Patricia Highsmith gazes off to the side with a deeply suspicious look, one thick eyebrow arched, as if she's about to interrupt the photo shoot to ask, one last time, why exactly you need to take her picture. She wears a black frock coat, buttoned over a scarf against the cold, hands jammed in her pockets; you ought to be able to see her breath. Behind her and out of focus, light comes through an arched doorway. The middle-aged Highsmith in this photo reveals hints of the striking beauty she possessed when she was young, evidenced by luminous photos of her in her twenties and thirties. What she fully retains from her youth is a sense of danger--muted by the years, but still potent. She did not, it seems, have a happy life, and the misanthropy that comes through in her writing seems to have been deeply rooted; the face in this photo isn't likely to make one reconsider that assessment. [Aside for Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica fans: Highsmith bears more than a passing resemblance to Michelle Forbes.]

Photos, of course, don't really tell us anything definite about writers, let alone their books. But, like biography itself, they're a satisfying addition to what the writers make available on the page. I think Javier Marias pinpoints the appeal of knowing the faces of authors in the passage below, which opens a brief section of his wonderful Written Lives (2005) that treats photos of authors that he has spent a lifetime reading:
No one knows waht Cervantes looked like, and no one knows for certain what Shakespeare looked like either, and so Don Quixote and Macbeth are both texts unaccompanied by a personal expression, a definitive face or gaze which, over time, the eyes of other men have been able to freeze and make their own. Or perhaps only those that posterity has felt the need to bestow on them, with a great deal of hesitation, bad conscience, and unease--an expression, gaze, and face that were undoubtedly not those of Shakespeare or of Cervantes.

It is as if the books we still read felt more alien and incomprehensible without some image of the heads that composed them; it is as if our age, in which everything has its corresponding image, felt uncomfortable with something whose authorship cannot be attributed to a face; it is almost as if a writer's features formed part of his or her work. perhaps the authors of the last two centuries anticipated this and so left behind them numerous portraits, in paintings and in photographs. . . . It would be naive to try and extract from them lessons or laws, or even common characteristics. The only thing that leaps out at one is that all the subjects are writers and now, at last, when they are all dead, all of them are perfect artists.

If I think the hint of malevolence in Highsmith's photo is off-putting, I quickly change my mind as I move it aside and reveal, beneath it, the cover of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954), on which an army of grotesque vampires surges forward, teeth bared. While the photos of the authors on the other books may tell me something about them and their books, the vampires, I think, tell me everything I needed to know before opening I Am Legend.

At the very least, the vampires would be sufficient to prevent me from opening the book late some winter night when Stacey is out and I'm all alone in the house . . .

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Death of the Detective

On the recommendation of my former coworker, Jim, I picked up the Northwestern University Press reissue of Mark Smith's The Death of the Detective (1974) expecting a dark noir tale. And that's what I got . . . for a while.

The Death of the Detective is set in Chicago at some vague point between the late fifties and the closing of the Riverview amusement park in 1967. The postwar boom has faded and is beginning to be replaced by urban decay, white flight, racial and ethnic strife, and a creeping sense that the city is beginning an irreversible decline. It opens with a madman intent on murdering a dying Lake Forest millionaire, and we quickly meet the detective who will oppose him, Arnold Magnuson. In his fifties and essentially retired, Magnuson is famous for the detective agency he founded, which now makes most of its money supplying the ubiquitous Magnuson Men, a sort of combination of Andy Frain ushers and the Pinkertons. Called in by the millionaire, who anticipates the murderer's arrival, Magnuson finds himself deeply enmeshed in what quickly becomes a confusing web of murder and deception.

But that's just the basic plot that gets the book moving; after a while, it becomes clear that the plot is the least important part of The Death of the Detective. To have a sense of the thick, textured concoction this novel really is, you need to blend that story with Carl Sandburg's hog butcher, steep the result for a few decades in a broth of Dickens, Kafka, and Melville, and then salt it with a bit of the prose styles of James Jones, Nelson Algren, and W. M. Spackman. From Dickens, Smith takes a love of the grotesque and a fascination with the patterns of urban life: the unpenetrated neighborhoods rife with secrets, the endless hiding places to be found there, the unexpected and unsettling meetings with people one has known in other contexts. Kafka supplies the gaping horror at the fact that we can never quite do what we mean to do, perpetually distracted trying to catch up to what we should have done already--overlaid with the gnawing fear that there is no hope for any true justice because guilt is showered liberally on us all. Melville, meanwhile, provides the unstinted ambition and raging, unbridled prose: the full, complete story of every part of this brawling city can be told, and Smith is determined to make the attempt.

So he puts us perpetually, restlessly, in motion. We travel to the 31st Street Beach, a meat-packing plant, the Gold Coast, a West Loop Skid Row, Evanston, Edgebrook, Uptown, Bughouse Square, a topless bar in unincorporated Niles, Rogers Park, Bronzeville, the West Side, North Avenue Beach--the list goes on, covering every conceivable Chicagoland location. Yet somehow Smith never gives the sense that he's checking items off a list; rather, the wanderings of his characters seem to make a crazed sort of sense, like they, too, need to see the city as a whole in order to begin to understand how its corruption, decay, and sickness have damaged them--and yet how its underlying vitality has enabled them to keep up the fight.

Throughout, the characters see Chicago in its past and present incarnations simultaneously, casting dark shadows on its uncertain future:
What a change from the old days when ironmongers and rag-pickers would cruise up and down the alleys in horse and wagons or those high ancient trucks like ornate indestructible stagecoaches, each man with his own unique, recognizable, unintelligible cry; as would the trucks and wagons delivering coal and hawking whatever fruits and vegetables were in season, produce from the truck farms just to the north and west of the city and no that far from the neighborhood. And the residents themselves, man, woman, and child, would walk the alleys, preferring them to the sidewalks or the streets, using them like a secret network of footpaths and short cuts that traversed the neighborhood.

Throughout, there is a sense that the city may have in the past made sense, with everyone and everything in its place--but the future is uncertain, its categories shifting in unexpected ways. Smith spends a lot of time exploring the city's simmering racial and ethnic divisions, and his characters find themselves frequently confused both about their own identities and where those identities, if it's possible to stabilize them at all, could fit in the ever-shifting mosaic of the city. Large-scale change is on the way, and even the vague intimations of it the characters feel are unmooring them. At times, it seems all of Chicago is slowly going mad.

Smith crams the book's 600 oversized pages with description and digression, and he drags dozens of characters through multiple overlapping plots. I can't deny that The Death of the Detective could have used some editing: some portions drag, some characters never amount to much, and some scenes are repetitive. But Smith's ambition is so vast, and the tapestry he weaves so detailed and compelling, that I'm willing to forgive him the occasional lapse. I imagine that the book's length is one of the reasons it stayed out of print for so long--upon its release in 1974 it was a best seller and a National Book Award finalist, but it spent more than twenty-five years out of print. It's tough to print such a big book economically, and it can be similarly tough to convince readers to pick up such a huge book by a little-known author.

I think that neglect is also a reflection of Chicago's second-city status: had this book been set in New York, I have no doubt that it would have remained in print and would be regarded as a true American classic. But that's fine by me. Everyone knows New York's glories; us Chicagoans get to keep many of our city's treasures to ourselves, secret recompenses for living through February and August. The Death of the Detective definitely belongs on that list, Chicagoans.

[I see the writer of Neglected Books agrees with me; you can find some more information there about the book's critical reception.]

Monday, February 12, 2007

Wendell Berry, part three

Part one is here, and part two is here.

Loss is the primary driving force behind Berry’s newest look at Port William, the very brief Andy Catlett: Early Travels, which tells of two days in the life of 9-year-old Andy Catlett, who has over the years served as Berry’s stand-in in his fiction. As 1943 turns to 1944, Andy spends a day with each of his sets of grandparents, helping with farm chores, visiting with neighbor kids, and enjoying the freedom of a solitary walk to town. He reads the tales of King Arthur, eats his grandmother’s biscuits, and tears up when he can’t figure out what to say to a friend of the family whose nephew has been lost in the war. Mostly, though, he just enjoys the implicit freedom of a two-day pass to his grandparents’ houses, and we, through the eyes of an older, 70-something Andy, enjoy it with him.

Like kids do, Andy generally takes the people around him for granted. But as those of us who’ve read A Place on Earth realize, much of what Andy is telling us about will be gone soon, much of it with astonishing speed, and that perspective, represented by the older Andy, imbues the story with both sadness and a sense of forever-lost opportunity. “By now,” he says, “of all the people I have been remembering from those days in Port William, I alone am still alive. I am, as Maze Tickburn used to say, the onliest one.” The book is shot through with the lament, so pervasive as to almost be a refrain, “Why did I not ask them about it when I had the chance?” As much as anyone writing, Berry makes clear the tremendous cost of every single death: the world thus lost to us is unrecoverable, and the older the person who's died, the more precious and full was the world that has been lost.

But for all that, it is not a depressing book, or even a particularly sad one. Like Proust or Anthony Powell or any number of other authors, Berry has at least partially succeeded in his aim: he has stored up some of the flavor of those times, the reality of those people, so we all can know and understand them. Much is lost, but the beauty of what has been preserved, what has been shored up against loss, keeps the sadness in check--a component of memory, yes, but by no means its entirety. As Andy Catlett notes, late in the book:
We measure time by its deaths, yes, and by its births. For time is told also by life. As some depart, others come. The hand opened in farewell remains open in welcome. I, who once had grandparents and parents, now have children and grandchildren. Like the flowing river that is yet always present, time that is always going is always coming. And time that is told by death and birth is held and redeemed by love, which is always present. Time, then, is told by love’s losses, and by the coming of love, and by love continuing in gratitude for what is lost .It is folded and enfolded and unfolded forever and ever, the love by which the dead are alive and the unborn welcomed into the womb. The great question for the old and the dying, I think, is not if they have loved and been loved enough, but if they have been grateful enough for love received and given, however much. No one who has gratitude is the onliest one. Let us pray to be grateful to the last.

At an age when many people are retired—but when, for example, many of Berry’s characters, too infirm to work, continue to traipse out to the field each day simply to be around and feel a part of the work and companionship that for so many years defined them—Berry is continuing to put the finishing touches on his overall masterpiece. I look forward to him continuing to tell me more about the Port William Membership; I’m sure there are some stories there I haven’t heard yet, and I don’t want it to be for lack of asking.

Wendell Berry, part two

Part one is here.

When someone is writing about a mostly lost way of life that he clearly loved, there is of course a tremendous danger of his falling victim to the falsifications of nostalgia, but Berry is far too clear-eyed to pretend that life when he was young was perfect—in part, I think, because he did appreciate that way of life so much that to be dishonest about it would be a betrayal. He writes well of the difficulty of manual labor and the precariousness of farming, and of the complications inherent to longstanding family and neighborly relations. Even more important, given that he’s writing about mid-twentieth-century Kentucky, is that he deals head-on with the issue of race. When his white characters interact with his black characters (who are usually working for them), Berry lets the issue of race remain complicated, refusing any easy answers, be they condemnation or absolution. The problem of race, and the complicity of those he's loved in its evils, gnaws at him as a storyteller, and he lets it gnaw similarly at his characters, forever unresolved.

That sort of honesty is also what allows Berry to avoid turning his fiction into polemic: by remaining true to the characters themselves rather than to ideas, he allows both the characters and the ideas they largely embody their full power. He’s not always completely successful. A whiff of polemic hampers portions of the otherwise masterly Jayber Crow (2000), and in the recent Hannah Coulter (2004) an effort to incorporate a reading of E. B. Sledge’s devastating memoir of the Pacific campaign in World War II (prompted, presumably, by anger over the Iraq war, underway as Berry was writing and to which he was an early, strident, opposing voice) threatens to derail an otherwise excellent look at a previously little-known character. But those are rare slips; for the most part, Berry is simply telling stories about believable people living a way of life he is just old enough to have seen firsthand and that he, in one way or another, misses every single day.

This post about Berry doesn't really break into equally sized chunks, so today's a short one. More tomorrow.

Wendell Berry, part one

About fifteen years ago, wanting tools for thinking about alternatives to contemporary consumption-crazy capitalism, I read E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful (1973). In certain circles, it has the status of a classic, but I found it an almost complete disappointment. Schumacher is thoroughly anti-modern, suspicious of technology and capitalism, and throughout the book he rails against the excesses of industrial production. But his argument is almost entirely a negative one: he wants to destroy our current economy and the way of life it creates and enables, but he offers no compelling alternative vision. Small Is Beautiful left me with the impression that Schumacher simply liked the (mostly imaginary) old days—maybe even medieval times—better than today, but that, whatever our doubts about contemporary life, there was no reason for the rest of us to follow him.

Years later, I discovered Wendell Berry, who, while sharing a lot of Schumacher’s suspicions of modernity, unlike Schumacher succeeds in presenting a positive alternative vision. For nearly forty years, in stories, novels, poems, and essays, he has both detailed the problems with industrial life and demonstrated the many benefits—and even the necessity of—alternatives. He is, to use Isaiah Berlin’s formulation, a hedgehog, having one big idea: that a local economy, tied to a healthy stewardship of the land and a sense of responsibility towards it and one’s family and neighbors, is the only economy that is sustainable over the long term. The land, in Berry’s mind, is given to us in trust, handed from one generation to the next, and it is the job of every generation to tend it well, repair damage that has been done, and pass it on healthier than it was when we received it. If we do that, argues Berry, we will have healthy land, strong communities, and successful families.

Berry’s essays are an always interesting combination of agrarian thought and personal reflection, making use of personal experience to illustrate larger points about community and land use and drawing the essential links between environmentalism and politics. They’ve taught me a lot about my own small-town background, explaining how the rapid post-World War II industrialization and the subsequent widespread adoption of automobiles and industrial farming techniques led to the current state of rural population loss and environmental degradation. They’re also a great starting point for anyone questioning, in particular, the way we currently raise and distribute our food in the West, and in fact they were a major source for Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (which I wrote about here).

The ideas Berry lays out in his essays also underlie his fiction, where they are explored through the lives of the interlocking families of the small Kentucky hill town of Port William. Since 1960 Berry has written seven novels and two dozen stories about what he calls the Port William Membership, from Reconstruction to the present day. Much of the large cast and many of the major events in the life of the town are presented in A Place on Earth (1967), which takes place in 1943 and 1944, as World War II begins to make its effects shown, though no one in the town yet realizes how extensive and long-lasting those effects will be, or that the result will be the loss of a long-sustained agrarian way of life. In subsequent novels and stories, Berry draws attention to different groups of characters and different periods, showing us alternative views of the same stories, earlier or later incidents in the lives of people we have already come to know well through A Place on Earth.

Berry's books are full of manual labor and the constant conversation that accompanies it, of families and marriages and deaths, of surprises and violence, of tired old jokes and sudden seriousness. They’re vastly entertaining, as captivating as a soap opera, and, as novel adds to novel, each fleshing out a different portion of the overall story whose contours Berry limned in A Place on Earth, the breadth and sweep of the narrative becomes breathtaking.

More tomorrow.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

On dreams

From The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Volume 1: Inferno (1308), translated by Robert M. Durling:
In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to
myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost
Ah, how hard a thing it is to say what that wood
was, so savage and harsh and strong that the
thought of it renews my fear!

It is so bitter that death is little more so! But to
treat of the good that I found there, I will tell of
the other things I saw.
I cannot really say how I entered there, so full of
sleep was I at the point when I abandoned the true

As I've said before, coincidences sometimes become connections, and with dreams on the brain after reading Robert Herrick's "The Vine," dreams were what I seemed to keep stumbling across (better than into, I suppose) this week.

First, in reading a review of Haruki Murakami's Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2006) by Christian Caryl in the March 1, 2007 issue of the New York Review of Books, I was struck by the following passage from a lecture Murakami delivered at a Cambridge, Massachusetts church in 2005:
In some ways a narrative is like a dream. You don't analyze a dream--you just pass through it. A dream is sometimes healing and sometimes makes you anxious. A narrative is just the same--you are just in it. A novelist is not an analyst. He just transforms one scene into another. A novelist is one who dreams wide awake. He decides to write and he sits down and dreams away, then wraps it into a package caleld fiction which allows other people to dream. Fiction warms the hearts and minds of the readers. So I believe that there is something deep and enduring in fiction, and I have learned to trust the power of narrative.

This seems to jibe with my assessment of Murakami's writing from back in the summer. I opened that post by recounting a dreamstory from Akira Kurosawa's film Dreams, and I followed it by arguing in favor of letting things sometimes just be what they are in Murakami's work, letting the inexplicable remain unexplained. The meaning is there--and for each book I could give some guesses at it--but it isn't to be extracted; it's of a piece with the presentation, hewing to an internal, organic logic that bears more resemblance to dream than to reality. It blunts our usual attempts to understand and only delivers up sense once we've begun to succumb to Murakami's own patterns of thought and causality.

I then was reading Anne Carson's wonderfully strange book, Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (2005). Opening an essay called "Every Exit is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep)," which travels from Homer, Socrates, and Aristotle to Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bishop, and Tom Stoppard, is the following:
My earliest memory is of a dream. It was in the house where we lived when I was three or four years of age. I dreamed I was asleep in the house in an upper room.

Then I awoke and came downstairs and stood in the living room. The lights were on in the living room, although it was hushed and empty. The usual dark green sofa and chairs stood along the usual pale green walls. It was the same old living room as ever, I knew it well, nothing was out of place. And yet it was utterly, certainly, different. Inside its usual appearance the living room was as changed as if it had gone mad.

Later in life, when I was learning to reckon with my father, who was afflicted with and eventually died of dementia, this dream recovered itself to me, I think because it seemed to bespeak the situation of looking at a well-known face, whose appearance is exactly as it should be in every feature and detail, except that it is somehow, deeply and glowingly, strange.

The dream of the green living room was my first experience of such strangeness, and I find it as uncanny today as I did when I was three. But there was no concept of madness or dementia available to me at that time. So, as far as I can remember, I explained the dream to myself by saying that I had caught the living room sleeping. I had entered it from the sleep side. And it took me years to recognize, or even to frame a question about, why I found this entrance into strangeness so supremely consoling. For despite the spookiness, inexplicability, and later tragic reference of the green living room, it was and remains for me a consolation to think of it lying there, sunk in its greenness, breathing its own order, answerable to no one, apparently penetrable anywhere and yet so perfectly disguised in the propaganda of its own as to become in a true sense something incognito at the heart of our sleeping house.

Despite very different surface tones and effects, the works of Murakami and Anne Carson (who won me as a fan ten years ago by describing in a poem the taste of a metal screen door as "medieval") share an organic strangeness, an underlying sense that one thing follows another not because anyone expects or asks it to but simply because that's what it does.

Lewis Carroll refined that sort of logic, running it through his memories of the operations of a child's mind, in creating Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Things happen in Wonderland for reasons that are not immediately obvious, but when Alice challenges the creatures she finds there they can always explain their actions--and their logic, though frequently frustrating, is very hard to refute. I may be forgetting something, but I don't remember Alice ever winning an argument in Wonderland--do you?

Says D. J. Enright, who is the one who got me thinking about Alice, in his Interplay: A Kind of Commonplace Book (1995):
What is essential to children's books--as distinct from some others--is good sense. . . . Without a basis of logic, or at least a strong presence, fantasy is mere whimsy.
That, I would argue, goes the same for dreams: no matter how impenetrable their underlying rules and assumptions may be once we're awake, while we're within the dream we can feel the press of them, the lines of causality that keep us from being all that troubled by what would otherwise be inexplicable.

Enright returns to Alice:
"The reader looks in vain for any immediate reason why Alice should have dreamt such a dream or for any very edifying result deriving from it": Illustrated Times, 16 December 1865, reviewing Alice in Wonderland. But easy to see why the author chatted fluently to children and started to stammer as soon as grown-ups came on the scene.

Finally, because it's fun to end with a scare, I'll leave you with a dream a friend of mine had many years ago. I'll call her Mona, rather than her real name, since I've not ever asked her if I may write about this dream:
After sitting up late into the night reading in bed in her little room at the top of the stairs, Mona drifted off to a troubled sleep. At about the midpoint of the night, she was abruptly awakened by a scraping, creaking sound; the window by her bed was being slowly pushed up. She turned her head, but then her muscles froze completely.

An arm slipped through the narrow opening, and, feeling its way with its fingers across the sill and onto the bedcovers, like a blind elephant searching out food with its trunk, it began plucking at the tousled covers, looking for Mona. After a few seemingly endless moments of being frozen in terror, Mona let loose with a blood-curdling scream; jerking upright, she woke up. The window was closed. It had all been a dream.

Breathing hard, heart pounding, Mona attempted to collect herself. As she reached to turn on her lamp, her window scraped open, and an arm pushed through, reaching out for her. She screamed again . . . and she woke up again.

This time, Mona left her bedroom and sat on the staircase for a while, lights blazing, and smoked some cigarettes. She slept the rest of the night on the couch.
Sleep well.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Some notes on sex in words

1) A while back I praised Lawrence Block's Lucky at Cards (1964), a sharp little crime novel about a card cheat. In that post, I neglected to mention the book's one real flaw--one which bedevils many a writer, crime and otherwise: the sex scenes.

The success of noir frequently depends on the ability of an author to convey the powerful pull of a dangerous woman, and Block holds his own there:
I saw the legs first--long and slender, and a skirt bending at the knees. I folded my cards and had a look at the rest.

She wasn't quite beautiful. The body was perfect, with hooker's hips and queen-sized breasts and a belly that had just the right amount of bulge to it. The hair was the color of a chestnut when you pick the husk from it. She had the hair bound up in a French roll. It was stylish as hell, but you started imagining how this female was with her hair down and spread out over a white pillow.

The face was heart-shaped, with a pointed chin and wide-spaced eyes. Green eyes. There were little tension lines in the corners of those eyes, and matching lines around the mouth. Her mouth was too full and her nose was a little too long, and that's why I said she wasn't beautiful, exactly. But perfection always puts me off. There's something dry and sterile about an utterly beautiful woman. This one didn't put me off at all. She kept me staring hard at her.

But when they get to bed . . .
The room was on a high floor, so no one could have seen us, but we never thought about that at the time one way or the other. The lovemaking was too fast, too furious, too compulsive. There was deep need and dark hunger, and flesh merging with flesh, and an orchestral swell out of Tschaikovsky that led to a coda of pure Stravinsky.

That vital dissonance was always there. That harsh and bitter beauty that tossed the conventional harmonies out the window.
Suddenly things are all cloudy, portentous, and overblown.

I don't mean to take Block in particular to task here. What he's succumbed to is the inherent peril of the sex scene in any kind of literature. Too much specificity starts to sound like porn; too little tends, it seems, to create a sort of vacuum, into which such pretentious nonsense as Hemingway's earth-moving orgasms begin to creep in. It's inherently difficult. I think Murakami, for one, usually handles sex pretty well, if only because he keeps it within the affectless range of his ordinary prose, letting it be simply something else that might happen to a person--though, of course, it can end up, even for his characters, being much more.

2) Block at his worst at least never describes a penis as a "blade of flesh," as Max Allan Collins did in a passage I've already taken him to task for. Good god, it's been months and I still can't purge that horrid phrase from my mind. Sorry to make you suffer with me.

3) I tend to side with those who choose simply to pass over the details--the waves crashing on the shore approach. I like, for example, the following scene by Anthony Powell in A Buyer's Market (1952), wherein the narrator, Nick Jenkins, having just come from a funeral, loses his virginity in the back room of an antique shop to a rackety left-wing revolutionist named Gypsy Jones--later referred to by Jenkins's best friend as "La Pasionara of Hendon Central." Though Powell is without a doubt circumspect to the point of obscurity in this passage, it is of a piece with his presentation of Jenkins's thought processes throughout, and it seems particularly suited to this situation, when Jenkins, viewing himself as, in a sense, late to the having-had-sex party, thinks on the event:
The lack of demur on her part seemed quite in accordance with the almost somnambulistic force that had brought me into that place, and also with the torpid, dreamlike atmosphere of the afternoon. At least such protests as she put forward were of so formal and artificial an order that they increased, rather than diminished, the impression that a long-established rite was to be enacted, among Staffordshire figures and papier-mache trays, with the compelling, detached formality of nightmare. . . . I was conscious of Gypsy changing her individuality, though at the same time retaining her familiar form; this illusion almost conveying the extraordinary impression that there were really three of us--perhaps even four, because I was aware that alteration had taken place within myself, too--of whom the pair of active participants had been, as it were, projected from out of our normally unrelated selves.

In spite of the apparently irresistible nature of the circumstances, when regarded through the larger perspectives that seemed, on reflection, to prevail--that is to say of a general subordination to an intricate design of cause and effect--I could not help admitting, in due course, the awareness of a sense of inadequacy. There was no specific suggestion that anything had, as it might be said, "gone wrong"; it was merely that any wish to remain any longer present in those surroundings had suddenly and violently decreased, if not disappeared entirely. This feeling was, in its way, a shock. Gypsy, for her part, appeared far less impressed than myself by consciousness of anything, even relatively momentous, having occurred. In fact, after the brief interval of extreme animation, her subsequent indifference, which might almost have been called torpid, was, so it seemed to me, remarkable.

A "brief interval of extreme animation." Now that's as good a brief definition as I've heard . . . unless, that is, you're Sting.

Of course, for those willing to attempt writing about sex, it can provide fodder for plenty of comedy, or pathos--or both. Kingsley Amis chose the "both" option in this passage from The Old Devils (1987):
Most of those whose marriages have turned out less than well, say, might have been considered to have their ideas of how or why but not to know much about when. According to himself Peter was an exception. If challenged he could have named at least the month and year in which he and Muriel had been making love one night and roughly halfway through in his estimation, what would have been halfway through, rather, she had asked him how much longer he was going to be.
The whole thing, especially in the context of the rest of the novel, is sad, but it's the "in his estimation" that elevates it simultaneously into the realm of comedy.

5) According to his biographers, when it came to sex, Kingsley Amis ought to have known. A review in the Literary Review of a new biography by Zachary Leader explained that Amis's operating philosophy seems to have been
If it moves, fuck it. If it doesn't, drink it.
From that review I also learned that once, when Amis fell asleep on the beach, his first wife wrote on his ample stomach
One Fat Englishman. Will Fuck Anything.
Need I have specified "first" wife?

6) Thinking of sex as comedy has reminded me of a favorite poem, Robert Herrick's "The Vine" (1648):
I dreamed this mortal part of mine
Was metamorphosed to a vine,
Which crawling one and every way
Enthralled my dainty Lucia
Methought her long small legs and thighs
I with my tendrils did surprise
Her belly, buttocks, and her waist
By my soft nervelets were embraced.
About her head I writhing hung,
And with rich clusters (hid among
The leaves) her temples I behung,
So that my Lucia seemed to me
Young Bacchus ravished by his tree.
My curls about her neck did crawl,
And arms and hands they did enthrall,
So that she could not freely stir
(All parts there made one prisoner).
But when I crept with leaves to hide
Those parts which maids keep unespied,
Such fleeting pleasures there I took
That with the fancy I awoke;
And found (ah me!) this flesh of mine
More like a stock than like a vine.

I owe my knowledge of this poem to Campbell McGrath, who included it on his syllabus for an extremely good poetry writing class I took as a freshman in college. If you don't know McGrath's work, Spring Comes to Chicago (1996) is a good place to start; I owe him at least that much of a plug in exchange for his introducing me to Herrick.

7) And, finally, speaking of sex in possibly inappropriate places (like the classroom): at my office, someone has recently put on the fridge a magnetic poetry set specifically geared to an office. Last week someone arranged
Office affairs teach collegiality.

This week, it's become
Office affairs teach ennui.

I have to admit: I have my doubts about both sentiments.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Thin Place, part three

Part one is here, and part two is here.

It's possible that Davis would say that I'm missing the point, that she intends to point out how our very real individuality pales beside our underlying commonality and interconnectedness, similar to how--to adapt images that the narrator uses--the rapid and dramatic changes of everyday life are both undergirded by and rendered minuscule next to the creeping accretions and alterations of geologic and galactic time. And there is undoubtedly a certain poignancy--even pathos--in the sense one gets that despite all this furious buzzing of mental and emotional activity in the town, each being is still trapped inside its own head, untouched and untouchable. There is tremendous power in that idea, the sort that can make a book so emotionally wrenching as to be painful to read--Woolf's To the Lighthouse and The Waves are that way. But Davis, it seems, hasn't fully imagined her characters, hasn't pressed hard enough on the thoughts that incited their creation--or, if she has, she's simply not been able to turn them loose and allow them to become separate from the overarching voice that organizes and pervades the book.

As my regular readers know, I don't write that often about books I don't like. I put enough effort into the process of selecting books that I don't end up even reading many that I don't like; when I do, I often will pass over them in silence, or with a brief post, simply because bad books frequently aren't worth writing about. The fact that I've devoted so many words to The Thin Place should make clear that I think it has value. It's a failure (though you shouldn't forget that the weight of critical opinion is solidly against me on this one), but it's an ambitious failure, admirable and generous in both its intentions and its view of the world. When I was about a hundred pages into it, I told Stacey it was becoming one of a very difficult and rare class of book for me: I was frustrated enough with it that I didn't want to keep reading, but I was interested enough that I didn't want to put it down. For all my criticisms in this post, I know that those are the sorts of books that stay with me, nagging at my understanding for years.

I will keep Kathryn Davis in mind; I may try one of her other books. I may even, someday, revise my opinion of this one, because reading, too, moves on two timescales, wedding the immediate and the long-term. Seeds that seem to have fallen on fallow ground sometimes, years later, produce a surprising harvest; you grow and change, and an old book, revisited, is made new and better.

The Thin Place, part two

Part one is here.

Which leaves the real, insurmountable problem I had with The Thin Place. I should start by saying that I like the idea of this book tremendously: In an effort to present a holistic picture of a whole town, Davis dips her narration into the minds of more than a dozen characters--and she doesn't limit herself to humans, presenting the perspectives of dogs, cats, beavers, bears, and even lichen. She is clearly fascinated with the way we live as part of a natural world while we most of the time pretend otherwise, and her quest to present all aspects of that numinous world is admirable and interesting. Her ambition to present so many perspectives in one brief novel, and to let peoples' thoughts be what they are rather than shaping them into standard narration, is what causes her to be compared to Woolf and James.

Where she falls down is in the execution; ultimately, though she moves from consciousness to consciousness, there is a sameness to all her characters' minds that, sadly, undercuts her ambitious aims. Here, for example, are the thoughts of a woman named Chloe:
When she first came back to Varennes, Chloe Brock told herself it would be temporary. It had been hard enough to get away to begin with, hard enough to yank loose the roots ,and then, having done so, to accept the fact and stop feeling like a thinned seedling shriveling in the compost pile. She'd waited to come back until her parents didn't live there anymore. They broke her heart--especially her father, who also made her furious, since the more someone broke her heart, meaning the more obvious their weakness was, the more infuriating Chloe found them.
And here is Chloe's boyfriend thinking about her:
He wanted to get back into bed. He wanted Chloe to wrap her arms and legs around him like a bear climbing a tree. He wanted to forget how frightening she had looked, standing there in the doorway, and the closer she was to him, the easier it would be to do that. Though you'd never mistake what he wanted for intimacy.
Davis's characters' thoughts tend to fall into nature metaphors--much like the narrative voice itself when it pops up--and they also, as the next passage will show when compared to the previous pair, frequently follow a pattern in which a string of thought is capped by a pointed, unexpected, or shocking statement:
If Billie were pretty would Henry's expressions be different? Even her late husband, Dougie, had often failed to find her interesting, though he'd loved her dearly. She'd never doubted that for a minute, even though everything else about Dougie had turned out to be a lie. He wasn't even named Doug.
Even the animals sound like one another--and like the humans, too, if a bit more abrupt. Here's the cat, Gigi:
He did seem a little like a mouse. Pointy nose, dark beady eyes. Too big to hunt down, toy with, kill. Snap off the head and remove the liver and entrails, deposit them near the Girl's shoes, where she couldn't fail to find them. She wouldn't be pleased.

The result of all this is that the many characters remain far too similar to one another, sharing a tone and feeling like greater or lesser variations on the narrative voice, which in an interview at the back of the book Davis admits is her own. Despite the specific content of each character's thoughts, the individuals remain amorphous--and thus even thoughts, emotions, and actions of great moment are stripped of power, seeming ultimately inconsequential.

The Thin Place, part one

I wanted to like Kathryn Davis's The Thin Place (2006). The reviews it received when it came out made it sound like something truly original and strange; in Harper's, John Leonard, whom I always appreciate even when I disagree with him, compared her to Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and Thoreau. The book's title, too, made it sound promising, a thin place being, in myth and religion, a place where the walls between the physical and spiritual worlds are unusually thin, to the point of being permeable. And the book opens with reasonable promise:
There were three girlfriends and they were walking down a trail that led to a lake. One small and plump, one pretty and medium-sized, one not so pretty and tall. This was in the early years of the twenty-first century, the unspeakable having happened so many times everyone was still in shock, still reeling from what they'd seen, what they'd done or failed to do. The dead souls no longer wore gowns. They'd gotten loose, broadcasting their immense soundless chord through the precincts of the living.
There's no doubt that this is the sort of paragraph that will make a person keep reading: the fairytale description of the girls sets a tone, and while the lines about the unspeakable might not hold up to close scrutiny, they're at least unexpected, a statement right up front that this book will be governed by a strongly expressed sensibility.

But there is also, already in that first paragraph and getting worse as the book progresses, a forced combination of weightiness and casualness to the prose, driven by a pretense of bouncing quickly from thought to thought, unconcerned, as minds are, with underlying structure. But this forces Davis's sentences into an oddly mannered slackness, where clarity (along with, at times, grammatical structure) is sacrificed. Meaning becomes unclear, odd constructions trip up the reader, and the flow of the telling is disrupted. Take this paragraph, for example, which follows a page or so written from the perspective of a pet dog, then a paragraph that seems to be in the voice of the omniscient narrator:
Poor beavers. So shiny and sleek--no wonder women wanted to put that fur on their bodies. Of course they didn't love the fur the way they loved the beloved--they didn't want to slip into the beaver's fur the way they wanted to slip into the beloved's coat or vest. They didn't want to be thought of as beavers. They just wanted to be admired. Also they wanted to stay warm.
It's unclear to me whether these are the narrator's thoughts--in which case, "beloved" could mean the men in the women's lives, and the women really do want to slip into those men's coats--or the dog's thoughts, perhaps--which, though less likely, would make the odd note of the word "beloved," and the idea of nuzzling into a vest, make more sense. The final sentence, meanwhile, seems to be so affected as to be in a sort of limbo, neither a tossed-off joke nor an actual observation.

I understand that passages like the above may not really be a serious problem; they may only grate on me with particular force because I do a lot of editing and therefore spend a lot of time thinking about structure and clarity. It's possible that most readers could pass over them without trouble. And the passages that tripped me up are intermingled with sharply written lines like these:
"It was only seven-thirty, and the study was like an oven, his hair like an animal sitting on his head."
"Outside in the parking lot, the air was hot and humid and as swarming with bugs as a brain is with ideas."
"'Time's up,' Piet said, trying to tip [the cat] Gigi off the pillow, like a ball or shoe, something without claws."
The effectiveness of such compact, clear images goes a long way towards mitigating my irritation with Davis's cloudier efforts.

Part two tomorrow.