The Comedy of Voice and Punctuation

June 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis.

Reading next: Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan.

Well, here’s something completely different. Jaime, my wife, has been a big fan of Portis for some time now. She’s been telling me to read DOTS every month for years now. I finally succumbed, since I’m trying to sprinkle Southern lit into my reading more regularly and it seemed like a good summer book and a good travelling book. (Which it was: a good laugh on an airplane never hurts, and it was appropriate to read about the Texo-Mexican scrublands while flying over the Southwest. Although, if we were to emulate the experience of the book, one of the engines would have started shaking and fallen off.)

And it’s true: Portis is funny as hell. Also, funny about hell. I don’t think Ray Midge’s descent into Belize is exactly a Dantesque journey — I’ll write about this hopefully tomorrow: I think the journey is something of a way to comment on the place departed, the American South — but, nevertheless, things do get a bit hellish now and then.

Gross over-generalization time: It’s harder to write fictional comedy in the first person than the third. No fair counting romans a clef or autobiographical stand-in narrators. Is that obvious? I don’t know, but I hadn’t really thought about it until reading this book. Third person allows for authorial interpolations on all characters, a focus on details those in the story cannot notice or would not mention, an “impartial” scene setting, and, most importantly, a shifting viewpoint, the ability to capture reactions and relationships in ways an author cannot when bound to a single, involved narrator. All of this is the very stuff of humor, setting up both the narrator and his or her readers to feel the superiority to the subject on which so many jokes are based. I can’t imagine A Confederacy of Dunces from the point of view of Ignatius or any other character, for that matter: it is too important to see them all bouncing off of each other, their personalities too strong to allow any of them to dictate the narrative.

Portis doesn’t give himself this luxury. He writes from the point of view, not just of the main character, but of a fairly… um… idiosyncratic main character. He’s something of a drifter, returning to school again and again to start one or another career path, only to lose interest or his nerve. He’s dependent on his fairly wealthy father for money. He’s a military history buff who refuses to read fiction.

And, while educated, he’s not your typical narrator who’s smarter than everyone around him. He’s a schlub from Little Rock, with few skills and fewer prospects. He’s no writer. While there’s much of the comedy of situation and personality in this book, many of the laughs — for me, anyway — come from Ray’s voice and even the punctuation Portis chooses, especially the exclamation point.

I suppose the word for Ray’s narration is deadpan, although I’ve never heard a completely satisfying definition of same. It’s true, though, that his narration betrays little emotion much of the time. But it’s more the juxtaposition of disparate modes or levels of language that he uses that tickles my funny bone. Rather than piling on snippets, here’s a longish section which encapsulates much of what I find funny in the book’s language:

In South Texas I saw three interesting things. The first was a tiny girl, maybe ten years old, driving a 1965 Cadillac. She wasn’t going very fast, because I passed her, but still she was cruising right along, with her head tilted back and her mouth open and her little hands gripping the wheel.

Then I saw an old man walking up the median strip pulling a wooden cross behind him. It was mounted on something like a golf cart with two spoked wheels. I slowed down to read the hand-lettered sign on his chest.

JACKSONVILLE

FLA OR BUST

I had never been to Jacksonville but I knew it was the home of the Gator Bowl and I had heard it was a boom town, taking in an entire county or some such thing. It seemed an odd destination for a religious pilgrim. Penance maybe for some terrible sin, or some bargain he had worked out with God, or maybe just a crazed hiker. I waved and called out to him, wishing him luck, but he was intent on his marching and had no time for idle greetings. His step was brisk and I was convinced he wouldn’t bust.

The third interesting thing was a convoy of stake-bed trucks all piled high with loose watermelons and cantaloupes. I was amazed. I couldn’t believe that the bottom ones weren’t being crushed under all that weight, exploding and spraying hazardous melon juice onto the highway. One of nature’s tricks with curved surfaces. Topology!…

“Hazardous melon juice” is one of the funniest noun phrases I’ve ever read.

It’s funny after that, too, but one must stop somewhere. Part of what’s funny here is embedded in the fact that Ray never reads fiction, I think: the telegraphed statements — “I was amazed.” — add some unquantifiable comedy, but make sense only for someone who’s not very comfortable with personal narrative. The fact that he was an engineering student also plays into that last paragraph. Ray’s character can seem like a loose bag of experiences and quirks, sometimes, making him into a savant of sorts. But it pays off in narration like his waving at a Jesus-freak and contemplating the freak’s chances of busting. And I’ve always been a sucker for a blend of meticulous detail and technical language with laid-back qualified “maybe” and “some” sentences.

Then there’s that exclamation point — “Topology!” These exclamations recur throughout the book, and they’re almost always funny, and they almost always crack me up when I think of them delivered in a Southern manner, with an Arkansas accent. It’s realistic, I guess I’m saying: funny because it’s true. Another funny moment comes in a bar in Laredo, when Ray explains his method of avoiding germs on bar glasses. “A quick slosh here and there and those babies are right back on the shelf!” These moments of excitement or intensity are often ironically funny, although I never get the sense that Portis condescends to his narrator. I think a large part of their effectiveness is simply due to the fact that there is very little else in the way of punctuation, besides periods: simple sentences, few commas, certainly no colons or semicolons or question marks. The surprise of those exclamations, frequently fragments, somehow heightens the humor.

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Boccaccio! You dog!

June 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

Finished: The Decameron.

I lied, I have one more comment on this.

In his epilogue, Boccaccio defends himself against those who will say that he has “an evil and venomous tongue” for his comments on the corruption of the clergy, among other things.  In the penultimate paragraph, he writes:

I will grant you, however, that the things of this world have no stability, but are subject to constant change, and this may well have happened to my tongue.  But not long ago, distrusting my own opinion (which in matters concerning myself I trust as little as possible), I was told by a lady, a neighbour of mine, that I had the finest and sweetest tongue in the world; and this, to tell the truth, was at a time when few of these tales remained to be written.  So because the aforementioned ladies are saying these things in order to spite me, I intend that what I have said shall suffice for my answer.

So, your neighbor-lady says you have a fine and sweet tongue, eh, Boccaccio?  Is this a double entendre?  Or unintentional comedy?  After these singularly bawdy tales, I am inclined to see this as intentional and quite saucy of him, but I couldn’t presume to draw a conclusion without reading the original.  But after all, earlier in the epilogue he says that many of his tales were no less inappropriate than people who use words like “rod,” “hole,” and “stuffing” every day.  It’s the kind of comment that, coming at the very end of the book, makes clear the book’s dual purposes of “instruction”: the potentially duplicitous reason of showing ladies what to watch out for so they can protect themselves accordingly, and the possibly more sincere reason of showing the many ways and means of taking their pleasure, making their loves.

Doing Good, Being Cruel: The Tenth Day

June 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Finished: The Decameron.

Travel, unfortunately, delayed this last post on Boccaccio, but I thought there was enough of interest on the tenth day to write a little something, however stale in my mind. (Besides, there’s no way the structuralist in me would allow a post on every day but the last.)

The stories on this last day, Panfilo’s, are largely a fun game of one-upsmanship: each teller tries to tell of the most munificent deed he can think of. Fortunes are awarded, wives bestowed, the “dead” returned to life. Many of these stories center on the deeds of the nobility or the enormously wealthy, and Filomena makes the excellent point that “Those people do well… who possess ample means and do all that is expected of them; but we ought neither to marvel thereat, nor laud them to the skies, as we should the person who is equally munificent but of whom, his means being slender, less is expected.”

The most interesting stories are the last, Panfilo’s and Dioneo’s. Panfilo’s is especially remarkable: it seems lifted from the Thousand and One Nights, and dramatizes the remarkably complex attitudes at the time toward Islam and the “East,” though I’m not sure whether Italians of the time would even think of it as such a thing other than directionally. It features Saladin, the Muslim ruler who recaptured Jerusalem and many other territories from the Christian crusaders. He travels to Europe in disguise as a merchant from Cyprus to scout his potential foes and is received very hospitably by a Messer Torello, whom he happens to unwittingly capture when the crusades actually begin. Saladin treats his servants very well and keeps Torello as his falconer; when Torello reveals his identity, Saladin does all in his power to restore him to his family and then some. I’m not an expert in medieval or Renaissance literature by any means, but the story seems remarkable to me for its depiction of respectful relationships between Christian and Muslim; it’s also remarkable in the Decameron for its use of magic, as Saladin’s magician whisks Torello back to Italy in one night to stop his wife’s marriage to another.

Then comes the last story, and this truly does seem a response to Emilia’s of the previous day, the wife-beating story. It is also remarkably cruel, especially for Dioneo. Gualtieri, a rich young man, succumbs to the pressure to marry and takes a very poor but virtuous wife, Griselda. After she gives birth to their child he “was seized with the strange desire to test Griselda’s patience, by subjecting her to constant provocation and making her life unbearable.” (The setup resonates, for me at least, with King Lear, in that it concerns a capricious ruler demanding ridiculous levels of deference for no good reason of his remarkably patient beloved.)

So, for about twelve years, he “pretends” to hate her and despise her low condition. He pretends to have their children killed (he really sends them off to stay with relatives). He ostensibly divorces her, forcing her to return to her impoverished family in only a shift. He pretends to have a new wife coming and wants Griselda to prepare his house and wait on her, since she’s a good cleaner and knows where everything is. Then, finally, being convinced that this girl (her own twelve-year-old daughter) is to be her husband’s new wife, Gualtieri says, basically, “Gotcha! It was just a goof.” And, one would hope, out comes Griselda’s machete. But no: she accepts it all, patient as ever (just like maddening Cordelia).

This is adapted by Boccaccio, I think, from a French folktale. And Chaucer uses it too, in the “Clerk’s Tale.” So you certainly have that sense of suspended reality, of humans acting inhuman to make a point about humanity. But it’s a pretty crappy point, here. Dioneo does, at least, end his story by acknowledging that Griselda’s trials were “cruel and unheard of,” and that it “perhaps would have served him [Gualtieri] right if he had chanced upon a wife, who, being driven from the house in her shift, had found some other man to shake her skin-coat for her, earning herself a fine new dress in the process.” Perhaps? Perhaps it would have served him right if Griselda came after him with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. She certainly should have screwed around, according to the logic of the previous 99 stories.

(Actually, since I’ve been Tarantino-riffing, thinking about Kill Bill is interesting in comparison to this story.  Imagine if Bill had reconciled with the Bride at their climactic meeting.)

I’m not sure how to take this, and especially how to read its correspondence with Emilia’s story of a less psychological torture. It would be comforting to me to imagine that he’s actually being deliberately over the top to point out the cruelty and absurdity both of his own story and of Emilia’s, but it seems unlikely. Somehow Love and torture coexist — and can actually depend on one another — in this universe. (I suppose for many, it is a less foreign concept than I’d like to believe.)

There are all kinds of interesting things to say about the conclusion and epilogue, too, but I have to stop. (Too much good stuff in Dog of the South to think about.)

Our Fascist Queen: The Ninth Day

June 22, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

Following up on my post on the eighth day and of importance to the ninth is the analysis of the characters of the “brigata” (the ten storytellers) on Decameron Web, the scholarly website maintained by Brown University. Sometimes it’s convincing on the character revealed by the introductions and conclusions of days, the choices of tales, the songs sung, etc. Other times it seems like the kind of selective magnification of some evidence and ignoring of others that people (okay, me) dislike academics for.

Nevertheless, it’s important on this day for its analysis of Emilia, the day’s queen, who chooses to allow each of the ten to discourse on whatever topic they want. Way back on the first day, Emilia sang that narcissistic song about gazing in the mirror. She also told, on the sixth day, a story about an unpleasantly vain young woman who gazes at herself in the mirror all day but is too stupid to understand a put-down about this very fact. Emilia introduces that story by saying she was “absorbed for quite a while in distant reverie”; after telling her very short tale, the day’s queen, Elissa, perceives that she had “dashed off her story.” (I learn from Decameron Web that Elissa is thought to be a Ghibelline, a noble supporting the Holy Roman Empire.) Emilia’s one whose dancing at the end of days is often pointed out, and she’s apparently one of the hotter ladies.

Again, it’s hard from this evidence to tell if Emilia is to be seen as a narcissist oblivious to her own narcissism, or as a beautiful young woman interested in combatting the narcissism she sees as a common vice of beautiful young women, or as Boccaccio’s rhetorical device representing narcissism and not necessarily imbued with any psychological depth at all.

Whatever the case, her story on her own day, when she can choose any theme she wants, is pretty freaking troubling. It is, quite frankly, a fascistic, misogynistic story, by far the most cruel in the whole work. Her introduction to the story is long, and she states that her theme will be that wives must be submissive to their husbands, and she cites the proverb “For a good horse and bad, spurs are required; for a good woman and a bad, the rod is required.” She points out the ribald wordplay available here — perhaps opening the door for a sexy undercurrent to her story — but immediately says that these words are valuable “even in their moral sense.” Emilia seems to be the biggest prude in the group.

In her story, a man with a shrewish wife receives the advice from King Solomon to “Go to Goosebridge.” There, he sees a stubborn mule beaten across the bridge. He goes home and beats his wife “until eventually he stopped from sheer exhaustion.” She behaves after that, and this is presented as a desirable outcome. The other half of the story deals with a man who feels unloved, and whose advice from Solomon is simply, “Love.” At the end of the story he understands that he must do everything out of love, not from simple obligation or courtesy, if he wants to be loved in return. This story seems so out of keeping with Boccaccio’s themes of pity, love, and questioning of received wisdom that I wonder whether this second story in conjunction with the wife-beating tale is meant to subvert that ugly message.

After this story, the ladies murmur, and some of the men laugh. The Decameron Web interpreters think that the characters of Emilia and Dioneo are linked by Boccaccio as subverters of the common laws of the group, in support of his theme that “transgression and repression are two sides of the same coin.” That certainly does seem to be one of his main, quite radical messages in the work as a whole, insofar as we go looking for political messages; but I’m unconvinced by the idea that Dioneo’s tale, as always, divided from the other stories of the day as a special privilege, is supposed to reflect upon Emilia’s. It seems utterly unrelated. I think the key to deciding how sincere Boccaccio is in the misogyny of this story depends on our decisions on Emilia’s character, and on whether we think Boccaccio presents her as a thoroughly unpleasant narcissist and fascist (not that fascism existed as an episteme at B’s time!), an earnest young noble, or a container for his ideas about vain ladies disposed to become shrewish wives. I’d like to learn more about this.

Tales and Tellers: The Eighth Day

June 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

Reading next: The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis.

Eight days in, and I’m still not sure what to think about Boccaccio’s orientation toward his work and his characters. Is he trying to create characters, in the ten patricians abandoning Florence? Or is he merely creating a pliable framework in which he can tell stories, dozens of them, of all shapes and sizes?

There have certainly been moments that indicated that Boccaccio was interested in the interaction of tale and teller, most obviously in the theme of Filostrato’s day. There’s also the songs sung at the end of each day, which are sometimes just pretty little lyrics but are sometimes self-consciously revealing of the singer’s desires or emotional state. At the end of this day Panfilo sings that “I with burning joy conceal/ A rapture I may not reveal.” Unlike Filostrato, flayed by his inability to hold his beloved, Panfilo seems to enjoy his love, even though he cannot express it in public and must keep it secret.

But on this day, at least, the stories are largely related only to one another: an incident or character in one provokes the next, with little apparent revelation of the teller’s character. Boccaccio, I suppose I’m trying to say, does not seem to care whether he’s consistent with the kinds of stories he has the ten tell, or whether the stories always seem appropriate to those telling them.

This more or less makes sense, I suppose, given Boccaccio’s times, his Humanist leanings away from the church but his still basically medieval world. There’s this strange tension between the literary world to come, of psychology and character, and that which had been before, of allegory, moral, formalism. (This is a little clearer, I think, in Chaucer, with his flesh-and-blood slices of society on a pilgrimage to Canterbury.) Interesting, then, that story about Giotto, with his move towards realistic human forms while still incorporating medieval techniques.

Fiammetta tells perhaps the most radical story yet, the eighth of the day. In it, a friendly neighbor, Spinelloccio, starts an affair with his neighbor Zeppa’s wife. Finding out about it, Zeppa takes his revenge by contriving to make love to Spinelloccio’s wife, on top of a trunk in which Spinelloccio’s hiding. And here’s how the story ends:

Spinelloccio now emerged from the chest, and without making too much fuss, he said:

‘Now we are quits, Zeppa. So let us remain friends, as you were saying just now to my wife. And since we have always shared everything in common except our wives, let us share them as well.’

Zeppa having consented to this proposal, all four breakfasted together in perfect amity. And from that day forth, each of the ladies had two husbands, and each of the men had two wives, nor did this arrangement ever give rise to any argument or dispute between them.

Before the ninth story it’s mentioned that the ladies discuss “the two Sienese and their wife-sharing.” That’s it! No mention of anyone offended, or blushing!

We also meet some recurring characters on the eighth day, the painters Calandrino, Bruno, and Buffalmacco, all real Florentines. Poor Calandrino! He’s come down through history (because of Boccaccio, or just because Boccaccio recorded his actual character?) as a naive simpleton, superstitious and capable of believing that a particular rock had made him invisible. The ten seem to love this crew, telling three stories about them on the eighth day and two more on the ninth. Boccaccio seems to use Calandrino as the fool who believes in folktales and thereby gets in trouble.

Under the Pear Tree: The Seventh Day

June 18, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

I have to admit, Dioneo’s day was a disappointment. I really thought we were in for some truly filthy stories and maybe an orgy or two, but there wasn’t really much of an uptick in filth or sex. That being said, it is a day befitting a trickster-figure like him: Boccaccio begins by telling us Lucifer is the only star left in the sky when they awake, and the tales revolve around wives tricking husbands. (As an aside, the names of the three men in the group are interesting and probably important, at least rhetorically, in ways I don’t understand: Panfilo, the all-lover; Filostrato, lowered or tortured by love; Dioneo, a Dionysian reveler.)

This seems like a setup for some old-fashioned misogyny, but most of the time the stories are really quite gentle — or at least, no harder on the wives than the husbands. Lauretta speaks best for him, introducing her story, the fourth: “O Love, how manifold and mighty are your powers!… What philosopher, what artist could ever have conjured up all the arguments, all the subterfuges, all the explanations that you offer spontaneously to those who nail their colours to your mast?” Women who trick out of love, or boredom, or for anything but money, really, are okay in Boccaccio’s book; as Lauretta sums up her story, “Long live love, then, and a plague on all skinflints!”

The most interesting stories are the first, Emilia’s, in which a wife convinces her husband that it is a werewolf, not her lover, that is tapping at their door at night, and the ninth, Panfilo’s. This is one of the most famous stories in the work, the magic pear tree story. It’s one of the few stories to take place outside of Italy, in Argos, Greece. In order to win the love of one of her husband’s handsome retainers, Lydia agrees to undertake three crazy tests. To show just how committed she is, Lydia says she’ll not only accomplish them all, she’ll make love to Pyrrhus (the retainer) while her husband watches. Once Lydia has completed her tests, they fulfill her final wish when Pyrrhus climbs up a pear tree and convinces Lydia’s husband that he can see him making love to his wife, even though they’re just sitting under the tree. Afraid the tree is enchanted, the husband climbs up himself, and sure enough, there’s Pyrrhus and Lydia, getting it on.

I mean, this is brilliant in any number of ways. It’s a mockery of magic and superstition; it’s breezy and utterly Boccaccian (is that a word?) in its insistence that people who want to screw will screw, and it’s silly to fight such forces as Love and Horniness; it’s ingenious in that the trick is that there really is no trick: it’s all in the husband’s head, all in his strange but utterly plausible combination of credulity and disbelief. All perspective and self-delusion. I think Chaucer uses it, in the Merchant’s Tale, which I need to go back and read again.

Archives, Libraries, Epistemes, and Eccentric Organization

June 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just read a terrific issue of the Believer, no. 50 (behind, I’m always behind). Three essays, nicely in sequence, had a lot of interesting things to say to the librarian in me.

The first was a really excellent piece by Eileen Myles, about a notebook she lost on a trip to Canada. It’s a fascinating essay in a number of ways, but especially for its discussion of how a writer’s view of her own writing is changed by the deposit of her papers in a special collections library. As she writes:

The problem with writing on the plane is not your neighbor. It’s your own growing sense that these mango-toned reflections at dawn over Buffalo will be read by someone you never met. They will meet this…. A notebook is the definition of private writing — private living. It’s precareer and postcareer in that it’s the only writing only you know as long as there is a you. And that excites me anew. There being a space of knowing apart from any selling, sharing, even making. Just sketching out — OK, I have to use my favorite new theory word: episteme… The word felt like god. It means the possibility of discourse…. It’s all that my notebook gets told.

Apart from being written in this really incredibly skillful stream-of-consciousness that alleviates whatever annoyance I usually have about autobiographical writer-writing-about-writing pieces, the essay touches on a lot of issues I’m really interested in but haven’t read much about: air travel and its weirdness and beauty; lost books, lost words, and the places they go, the spaces they occupy, the ways that they return to “nature” (Myles is fantastic on this); especially the relationship between working writer and archive. How does a writer maintain a sense of privacy, knowing all of her creative work is supposed to end up being read? How does that sense of one’s own importance — all you produce is valuable and worthy of preservation — affect one’s future work, one’s sense of privacy, one’s record keeping or lack thereof? Most uncomfortably for a librarian: is preservation necessarily a good thing? Has the mania for the literary archive gone too far? Are we, the archivists and special collections librarians of the world (and especially the U.S.), intruding too much into the ongoing creative lives of our creative thinkers? Do we need to back off? (There’s a conference touching on these issues later this year at the Ransom Center in Austin — the institution spurring much of the current mania.)

Then there’s an essay on Aby Warburg, the brilliant, occasionally insane art historian. He founded the Warburg Institute in London. He was the oldest son of an extremely wealthy banking family, and made a deal with his younger brother that the younger brother could take control of the family business so long as he agreed to buy Aby whatever books he wanted for the rest of his life. He set about doing just that, and organized his library on “the law of the good neighbor.” As Leland de la Durantaye explains, “the various sections and the books within them were arranged as a function of their ability to engage with the books on either side of them.” Here, then, is a personal library the likes of which Anne Garreta wrote about so well in “On Bookselves” (see my earlier entry “The Dream of Total Recall”). Warburg also worked on a massive project, called Mnemosyne, throughout his life: in it (as I understand), disparate images were juxtaposed to follow the path of themes, motifs, and ideas throughout the history of art. I want to read some of Warburg’s stuff now.

Then there’s Avi Davis’s “The Brain and the Tomb,” about the Archimedes Palimpsest, the manuscript of Archimedes’s work which was (partially) scratched out and written over by a Greek monk in the thirteenth century. Of course I love palimpsests: there’s no better physical metaphor for the dense, confusing, complicated paths that history takes, the ways that ideas are undervalued, written over, reevaluated, belatedly treasured. As Davis points out, very little has been written about the visible text of the palimpsest, the Greek prayers, which are now being ignored as squadrons of scholars pore over the Archimedes text beneath. We’re always looking one way, missing what’s under our noses as we sniff after some other “more important” idea or sensation; Warburg was on to this, and so is Myles, searching for authentic experience and immediate, personal contact with her own thoughts, ideas, life (harder than it sounds). Of course, this is why librarians preserve, this is why we fear the discarded: one day it will be wanted, you see, but it will be lost — and the episteme it may have made possible will be impossible for the lack of its existence.

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