October 31, 2009 § Leave a comment
Finished: Nights at the Circus.
As I mentioned in my last post, exuberance, digression, and deliberate inefficience (sometimes to a fault) are major keys to Angela Carter’s style, and ways in which her style reflects her message. The third chapter of the “Siberia” section is a more or less perfect example of how Angela Carter works.
In terms of simple plot development, this chapter is almost completely extraneous: its only purpose in connection to the main narrative is to introduce the characters who will rescue Walser from the train wreck. Instead of simply having some Siberian hunters or peasants find him, or the rescue crew take him to the next town, Carter introduces the tale of the Countess P.’s asylum/penitentiary for husband-murderers.
This and other self-contained backstory chapters are the best parts of Nights; they make me think that, from my limited experience, Carter is a better short-story writer than novelist. The story here, of the inmate Olga Alexandrovna discovering ways to subvert and, ultimately, bring down the Countess’s cruel panopticon from the inside, is moving and almost perfectly constructed for Carter’s feminist, humanist, and (perhaps) magical realist purposes (what it is not is at all necessary in this novel).
The paragraphs in which we learn the method by which Olga begins to communicate with the guard who delivers her food are another classic Carter passage — one that, while I still quibble with its word-by-word execution, I admire very much for its brilliant embodiment of Carter’s ideas:
That evening, after a free if surreptitious exchange of looks as supper was served, Olga Alexandrovna found a note tucked into the hollowed-out centre of her bread roll. She devoured the love-words more eagerly than she would have done the bread they replaced and obtained more nourishment therefrom. There was not a pencil nor pen in the cell, of course, but, as it happened, her courses were upon her and — ingenious stratagem only a woman could execute — she dipped her finger in the flow, wrote a brief answer on the back of the note she had received and delivered it up to those brown eyes that now she could have identified amongst a thousand, thousand pairs of brown eyes, in the immutable privacy of her toilet pail.
In her womb’s blood, on the secret place inside her cell, she drew a heart.
I mean… wow! That’s just a brilliant example of imaginative, utterly unrealistic, even antirealistic, fiction’s power to connect readers to difficult ideas in a way polemics or criticism cannot, as is this whole chapter. (Do I even need to read Foucault after this?) The opposition to institutional schemes of surveillance and enforced penitence; the discovery of lesbian love (female companionships, sexual and/or friendly, recur throughout the work); the brilliant, earthy, purely human, believably and powerfully symbolic method by which Olga replies, with its echoes of “Satanic” pacts written in blood, its message of totalitarian inability to overcome the physically and basically human and female, its touching example of the human need for connection and love; and the surprising romance of the last sentences — these are the essence of Angela Carter.
October 28, 2009 § 2 Comments
Just finished: Nights at the Circus.
Reading next: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.
Everyone has a different idea of what makes a “well written” book. I try to avoid describing books as “well written” for precisely that reason, though when I find myself using the phrase it’s generally in reference to a book in which I admired the author’s use of language, inventive sentence structures, and control over plot, without necessarily making much of a connection to characters or themes. Calling a book “well written” is a backhanded compliment, at least from me. It can be a matter of editing as much as writing, to some extent.
Nights at the Circus did not strike me as well written. I was surprised by this, as I very much admired the writing in Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. This is a matter of some sloppiness — things that surely should have been pointed out in editing — but also of style. Now, it is impossible to talk about Angela Carter for very long without talking about style. Hers was showy, verbose, lyrical, passionate. Flowery, even. In this book, it struck me as excessively so. Perhaps it is a matter of length. I’m not sure. At any rate, for my taste, this book includes a few too many sentences like this:
The toil-misshapen back of the baboushka humbly bowed before the bubbling urn in the impotently submissive obeisance of one who pleads for a respite or a mercy she knows in advance will not be forthcoming, and her hands, those worn, veiny hands that had involuntarily burnished the handles of the bellows over decades of use, those immemorial hands of hers slowly parted and came together again just as slowly, in a hypnotically reiterated gesture that was as if she were about to join her hands in prayer.
Carter will often coin hyphenates like that “toil-misshapen,” and will also wedge parts of speech in where she pleases (she’s especially loose about adjectives and adverbs). The writing consistently draws attention to itself, which is enough for some people to write it off as poorly written (and for others to praise it as well written). I have no problem with intentionally heightened (or lowered, or otherwise self-evident) language; but it better be damned well done. Sometimes it is here; sometimes it’s not, as in that turgid sentence about the baboushka.
Another matter of style is dealing with person and tense; Carter can also be loose with this, and I am appreciative of it to an extent. There’s something to be said for taking on the voice and perspective the story demands without worrying overmuch about the internal logic of your text; and I think Carter comes down on the side of liberty in these matters as in all others, consistently. I enjoyed the transition from the shifting third-person perspective of the second section to the introduction of the first person, in the mind of Sophie Fevvers, for the first time in the book, as we enter the third section, “Siberia.” But suddenly, within the first chapter, we again shift out of Sophie’s mind. It seemed capricious and unnecessary, in a book that has been rather free about letting us delve into minds and perspectives, nearly omnisciently, and has also been telling us back-stories and legends with some regularity.
All of which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book — I did. And all of which is not to say it’s not full of more interesting ideas and characters and plot twists than nine-tenths of the fiction I’m ever likely to read. But it struck me that this is one of the few books I’ve read recently that I found myself fighting against on the basic level of language: of annoyance with the words chosen, and their order. I do think Carter wanted her readers to tussle at that level, to some extent, to fight against the threadbare mundane language in which most of us communicate (and even think). Certainly the overabundance of her words and sentences was a central part of why the stories in The Bloody Chamber worked so well for me: nothing efficient, brutal, or straightforwardly masculine about them. “There’s nothing like confidence,” as Sophie says. In the tightrope act of fitting style to message, I thought the “confidence” of The Bloody Chamber was self-assurance, and the “confidence” of Nights at the Circus had more than a little of the grifter in it.
October 22, 2009 § 1 Comment
Now reading: Nights at the Circus.
Now I am faced with a horribly difficult question, a question that has bothered me to distraction (no shortage of distractions on the good ol’ Web), a question I’m still not quite sure how I’m going to answer: just what do I think of these chimps and these clowns?
There are both, in spades, in the second section of this book, set in St. Petersburg. There are also a communicative pig, two tiger attacks, and a very strange finale that I’ll also have to discuss. But I keep coming back to the chimps and the clowns. What the hell’s going on here?
This section reminded me of a favorite book, in need of rereading: Stephen Dobyns’ The Wrestler’s Cruel Study, which should be a cult classic, though I’ve never met anyone else who’s heard of it, much less read it. (Maybe I just don’t get out enough.) That book also involves some intelligent primates, and has a similar kind of madcap energy and balance of philosophical heft and absurdist incident to Carter’s book, and especially this second section.
But about the monkeys. Chimps, actually, to be specific. They are Lamarck’s Educated Apes, twelve of them. When we meet them, they’re rehearsing their act, a classroom scene. But they seem to be actually learning, and discussing; and, we find out later in the chapter, they can, indeed, write (or at least their leader, the Professor, can). Lamarck is an abusive drunk; the chimps end up striking out on their own, after Colonel Kearney, the circus’s owner, cheats them.
And then there’s the clowns. And there are twelve of them, too, actually — or is it thirteen, with Judas-Walser? The comparison to the apostles is made explicit; Buffo the Great, the clown’s leader, as Christ. After some earlier fun with a travesty of the resurrection, they have a travesty of the Last Supper, which leads to a very drunk Buffo losing his mind, trying to kill Walser and getting committed.
They’re a gloomy lot, these clowns, given to philosophy and quotations from somewhat unlikely sources. King Lear, for instance. The “twin” musical clowns, Grik and Grok, engage Buffo in an exploration of uselessness and nothingness:
“…turned into more than the sum of our parts according to the dialectics of uselessness, which is: nothing plus nothing equals something, once—”
“—you know the nature of plus.”
….But Buffo wasn’t having any.
“Bollocks,” he said, heavily, belching. “Beg pardon, but balls, me old fruit. Nothing will come of nothing. That’s the glory of it.”
And the entire company repeated after him soft as dead leaves rustling: “That’s the glory of it! Nothing will come of nothing!”
So what are we to make of these two groups of twelve? The Professor and the chimps carry themselves with a dignity and sense of decorum all out of line with the behavior of the rest of the circus, and most especially with the obscene, scatological, debased clowns. I am not sure what the import of all of this is supposed to be, quite honestly. The messiness of humanity does seem to be part of “the glory of it,” in Carter’s eyes, and also part of the tragedy of it (see Mignon’s story, about as messy as it gets: the messiness of murder, and abuse, and abject poverty).
Colonel Kearney calls his circus “the Ludic Game,” and one wonders if that’s how Carter saw this book — or at least the Petersburg section of it: her mind at play, over matters serious and frivolous alike, amusing itself and hopefully others. The section ends with what sure seems to be a flight into surrealism or plain and simple magic, as Sophie escapes an evil Grand Duke’s clutches by dropping a toy train onto his gorgeous carpet; we then find ourselves suddenly on the real Trans-Siberian Express. It’s a disorienting section break, one I’m not exactly sure I’ve interpreted correctly, and one no author who wanted her readers to remain straight-faced would have undertaken. But it also seems to fit with a St. Petersburg episode so superabundant with ideas, stories, and language.
October 12, 2009 § Leave a comment
Just finished: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.
The cover of my Penguin Classics copy is this famous Goya etching:
“The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters,” the typical translation of the writing on the desk goes. I’ve loved it ever since I first learned about it (and about Goya) researching a paper during my freshman year of college.
It’s a fine choice for the cover, since the tug between reason and faith, science and the supernatural, is a major part of Potocki’s book. While the theme is perhaps standard for the Gothic genre, here it also acts like something of a brilliant thematic complement to the historical fiction, since the manuscript narrates events in 1739, in the thick of the Enlightenment.
Central to the theme is the core mystery of whether or not van Worden’s encounter at the Venta Quemada was supernatural, and how it could be explained otherwise. This does all get resolved, if somewhat unsatisfyingly, by the end of the book. But three subplots also directly address, and complicate, the reason vs. faith struggle: the computations of Velasquez the geometer, and the stories of Uzeda the cabbalist and his summoning of the Wandering Jew.
Velasquez is in the habit of turning any narrative into an equation, plotting its coordinates on a graph or applying his newfangled calculus to discover its underlying logic. (Velasquez often seems more like a behavioral economist than a geometer.) We are often given Velasquez’s process in solving these “problems” in full. He is, essentially, the stereotypical absent-minded professor, wandering off to complete his equations whenever they occur to him. But these sections are, essentially, word problems, and their place in the narrative seems to be to serve as — dare I say it again? — infotainment! (I’m a big fan of the use of the exclamation point in The Informant! — best ever use of punctuation in a film title?) There really seems to be no other reason for Potocki to give them to us in full, rather than summarizing them.
Which is not to say that they don’t serve a narrative function, as well; Uzeda’s daughter, whom we first know as Rebecca and then as Laura, serves at first as a sarcastic foil to Velasquez’s nerdy twisting of every life story into an equation, but gradually comes to respect his “system” and love him for his mind and his heart. Velasquez delves into his system on the 37th to 39th days, and his thoughts on religion do seem formed by — and in reaction to — the Enlightenment. It seems that these thoughts, reconciling reason and religion, shift Rebecca away from sarcastic dismissal of Velasquez’s over-rational approach to life and toward an appreciation of his finer qualities:
Thus, rather like the lines we call asymptotes, the opinions of philosophers and theologians can converge, without ever meeting, to within a distance which is smaller than any given distance…. Now does a difference which I cannot perceive give me the right to set my convictions up in opposition to my brothers and to my Church? Does it give me the right to sow my doubts in the faith that they possess and which they have made the basis of their ethics? Certainly not…. So I submit heart and soul.
The other most blatant example of infotainment in the book is the Wandering Jew’s story. The Wandering Jew here functions as a kind of historical Forrest Gump: giving us a crash course in history as well as telling us about his brief encounters with historical figures (Cleopatra! Herod!) For much of the middle third of the book, Velasquez and the Wandering Jew monopolize great chunks of text with their edifying infotainment: Velasquez’s supreme reason and Ahasuerus’s implausible march through millennia taking turns educating us.
You can certainly argue that the book’s ending closes the argument decisively in favor of reason. However, I believe that Potocki thinks there’s something to Velasquez’s apologia for religion; and while he may have exposed superstition, he has certainly been careful to leave the door open on faith. More than that, a perfectly rational explanation for everything in the novel is, at some level, rather beside the point: the cabbalists, ghosts, demons, and underground kingdoms are the fuel that keeps the narrative moving, that keeps the reader interested, in ways that Velasquez’s equations never do. The experience of the book is such that one does not know whether to believe or disbelieve and, like Velasquez, must “submit heart and soul” to find out how Potocki wraps it all up. Suspension of disbelief is a much more spiritual undertaking than we typically acknowledge; and frankly, it’s a little disappointing when a writer tries to explain that while I thought I was taking a leap of faith, there was really a nice mattress waiting for me all along.
October 4, 2009 § 1 Comment
Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.
Life is a matter of listening as much as doing; a matter of stories as much as events. Is this a message (a moral?) I’m imposing on the work, or is it intentionally buried in its structure? I suspect it’s the former, but Potocki seems to have been so sensitive to his eccentric work’s effects on his readers that I’m not entirely sure.
One reason I suggest this is the recurring theme of stories that reflect upon and/or interpret the events in one or more of their framing narratives. A straightforward example is “The Story of Thibaud de la Jacquiére,” on the tenth day. Van Worden, wondering whether his “adorable and adoring” cousins might actually be “sprites,” “witches,” or “vampires” who are playing tricks on him, reads the story in a 17th-century collection of German tales. A kind of erotic prodigal-son story, it involves a young man seducing a beautiful stranger, only to find her transformed into Beelzebub as they have sex. He wakes up on top of a corpse in a garbage dump, then repents with his last breath.
This kind of correspondence between levels of narrative makes you think something’s up: is the whole thing going to end up being a dream, or some kind of farfetched plot to teach van Worden a lesson, or are there actual supernatural forces at work, or what? In fact, even van Worden seems to sense that something’s up, since after reading he only “almost” comes to believe that his cousins are demons. This might be a poor example for the point I set out to make, actually, since it’s a little too pat; there are other stories which seem to comment on van Worden’s couching of all virtue in honor, or on the plot developments with the haunted (?) Venta Quemada. In fact, there’s a possible counter to the story of Thibaud: the Gypsy Chief’s adventures with the Knight of Toledo, a libertine who repents after an apparent supernatural experience, only to find it was actually an extraordinary set of coincidences that scared him so; he leaves his excessively monastic penance, instead doing good and revealing his virtuous character.
The story of Pandesowna, the Gypsy Chief, was what brought this possible moral to mind for me. This one story is actually the bulk of the book: appearing, frequently interrupted, from the twelfth to the 62nd day, containing many further layers of story. Pandesowna’s life story contains many incidents, to be sure, but much of it is composed of the stories of others: Pandesowna listening, in other words. What moves his own story forward is his and others’ reactions to narratives, the stories of others and the emotions they provoke. And this infects the top level of the narrative’s reality: van Worden and the others await the continuation of the chief’s story just as he awaits the stories of those he hears, and many days pass in which nothing happens but the group waiting for Pandesowna to continue his tale. (There’s more than a little of the Thousand and One Nights in this day-to-day interruption and continuation of the narrative.) Is the work actually a moral progress whereby van Worden comes to see that virtue is not only a matter of honor, but of empathy, as well?
I think perhaps I’m not doing this aspect of the work justice: it’s a rather beautiful effect, the way it points out (in its plot- and genre-besotted way) how much it matters to think and care about the stories you read and hear, the people you meet, to weigh them judiciously without rashly judging (after all, I don’t know yet whether or not Emina and Zubeida actually are demons, and neither does van Worden). One of the great meta-themes and justifications of literature, as many people have said, is this vicarious living of many lives, fictional or not. But I digress. I hope I can work this in some more in my subsequent posts on the book.
October 3, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.
That title may seem like a transparent attempt to drum up some misguided traffic (in the grand tradition of my previous posts “Blogging About Flogging” and “Tales of Ribaldry”), but it’s actually a fairly accurate representation of the key to the action in the framing narrative (really the largest frame within the frame about the manuscript’s later discovery — the first example of the play with time in the narrative, the looping back from the present/future into the past). There really are mysterious Muslim babes here, presented as such, if not in so many words. They’re exotically transgressive and objectified and, oh yeah, they may actually be part of a plot to convince our hero, Alphonse van Worden, to reject Christianity and accept Islam, or they may be succubi. Did I mention that these sisters, Emina and Zubeida, also claim to be van Worden’s cousins, of the famous Gomelez family, holders of the “secret of the Gomelez”? It all gets very weird and, for the 1810s, pretty racy (there’s definitely three-way sex going on here, or at least the illusion of such).
So all of that seems like it’s straight out of Orientalism 101, and it surely is, but Potocki also complicates the expected narrative in interesting ways. Though there are many apparently supernatural events in which the sisters are (apparently) involved which lead us, the readers, to believe they are demons, van Worden refuses to believe it. On the seventh day, the sisters are finally able to remove from van Worden’s neck the necklace holding a relic of the true cross; they then consummate their relationship and, in van Worden’s words, “my charming companions became my wives…. And I am led to conclude that my cousins played no real part in my dreams at the Venta Quemada.” After the consummation, the Muslim Sheikh of the Gomelez appears; but Emina says to van Worden, “… listen carefully to what I am now saying to you. Do not believe any ill that is spoken of us. Do not even believe the evidence of your eyes.”
Van Worden bases all of his self-worth in his honor; he has accepted the girls as his wives (granted, after irresistable seduction and some trickery); and so, even when it seems evident to the reader that he is, in fact, at the mercy of either demons or a convoluted plot to win his soul for Islam, he continues to believe Emina’s words. He believes they are his cousins. And, as I’ll talk about later, the battle between reason and faith that develops in the text also undermines our own belief in the supernatural events we’ve apparently witnessed.
There’s also Potocki’s very interesting handling of van Worden; he is a rather opaque character. We often do not receive from him the reactions to stories or events that we might expect; his morality is kept rather vague, except for its grounding in the maintenance of honor; in the middle of the book he retreats into the background, mostly just narrating the events between stories without comment. His impressions of Islam, especially, are ambiguous. Later introductions of Jewish, deistic, and other Islamic characters further muddy the waters: the question becomes, how are we the readers intended to react? There are certainly crude slurs on the Jews and Muslims here — but they are also presented telling their own stories, often quite empathetic stories, and presented as worthy of our attention and interest.
Spain, as a land of Romance and mystery at the time Potocki was writing, plays a part here. Reading a story set in Spain at the time Potocki was writing could alert the reader to the fact that the story would be fantastic and exotic — operating at a fictional level where some acceptance of and commerce with fictional Jews and Muslims could be permitted. Also important is Potocki’s shuffling of genre: he’s very self-conscious about playing with the already trite genres his characters sometimes work in, very self-conscious at times of reminding us that we’re reading a novel, an entertainment trying to titillate, intrigue, excite, and amuse us.
Anyway, I clearly have some criticism to read. In the meantime, the latest developments in my reading so far are the events of the 29th and 30th days. Van Worden, to prove his bravery to a bunch of people he doesn’t know, goes into the “kingdom of the gnomes” underground. Two “chthonic divinities” approach him in the dark, which turn out to be his cousins. They further tempt him to convert, then they have some sex, and then van Worden wakes up alone in the tunnels under a mountain. This turns out to be “the underground domain of the Cassar Gomelez,” where the secret is guarded by a “dervish” that van Worden meets. He gives his word not to reveal the secret, and so we are left in the dark; but we do see “a golden tree representing the genealogy of the Gomelez. The trunk split into two major branches, one of which, the Muslim Gomelez, seemed to unfold and flourish with all the force of a vigorous plant, while the other, representing the Christian Gomelez, was visibly withering and bristled with long and menacing pointed thorns.”
In this book of connections between stories and among different levels of stories, this episode reminded me of a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, the Principessa di Monte Salerno’s Story on the thirteenth day. The Principessa shows her guest underground vaults containing automata made of jewels and precious metals, incredible lost treasures from the history of art, and many other wonders; but it turns out that she is a demonic ghost who, when alive, “publicly declared that she possessed paradise on earth” and renounced Christianity, and now haunts the ruins of her former paradise. It was all an illusion. I wonder what this all means for the fabulous underground lair van Worden visits; and I wonder if he wonders about that story, which he heard, and whether he’s meant to connect it to what he appears to be experiencing.
(As a footnote: these two episodes are strong reminders of Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, pretty much the most awesome work of criticism I’ve ever read, with its examination of grottoes, automata, speaking idols, and the submerged irrational in art, language, literature, culture. I know I’ve plugged it before; I’m doing it again now. Surprising she didn’t discuss this book, actually, although she does mention it once.)