The Art and Science of Travel

July 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: Autonauts of the Cosmoroute.

Reading now: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

I’ve been traveling a lot this spring and summer (hence my very, very intermittent posts) — some for work, some for fun.  Autonauts of the Cosmoroute is a great travel book, although it’s made me itch to do the kind of travel I rarely get to anymore: the unhurried, meditative, purposefully digressive kind.  (Only Revolutions, which so far as I’ve been able to glean is more or less a centuries-long allegorical road trip to no particular place, is not really helping to ease this itch, either.  Come to think of it, The Savage Detectives was also singularly unhelpful.)

In Autonauts, Julio Cortázar and his wife Carol Dunlop spend a month in a VW camper van driving down the French “autoroute,” stopping at every rest stop along the way, two per day, and doing nothing else — seeing “the other autoroute,” the one that does not exist for those who just use it as a means of quickest-possible transport.  It’s the book’s playful, idiosyncratic, and finally bittersweet tone that makes it such a great read.  It’s made up of photos and captions, “travel logs” of meals eaten, “observations” made of the rest stop flora and fauna, short essays on the nature of travel and time and dreams and their journey, and flights of fancy in the style of a  scientific expedition.

(A digression: I’ve always wanted to travel around the country and live out of a homey little camper.  When I was maybe 13 or 14 I read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley mostly because I found the idea of traveling around in an apartment-truck with your dog more or less irresistible — and the section of the book about Steinbeck getting his truck ready is one of the few things I still remember about it.  That was before I — or most people, really — thought about MPGs or carbon offsetting.)

It’s a book purporting to document the science of travel, but really it’s very much about an art: the art of memory.  If we think of the historical art of memory as Frances Yates examined it, with its imaginary theatres and palaces filled with rooms of memories, travel is like a kind of very elaborate landscaping: the decoration upon which the inhabitants of the palace gaze.  Isn’t travel a kind of device for making and recovering memories?  We all remember vividly our favorite vacations, road trips, destinations.  And while we’re traveling, can’t we see more perfectly than when we inhabit them our homes, and don’t we recall incidents from our lives with greater clarity?

I don’t know about you, but I also remember what I read when I travel much better than things I only read at home.  It must be something about being mentally absorbed in a different place, in unusual surroundings.  Some of my favorite memories are of reading something I love elsewhere: Ray Bradbury on a boat, Tom Jones in a Danish restaurant.  My choice of reading material always seems more important to me if I’m going on a trip.

Savage Detection

June 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: The Savage Detectives.

Reading now: The Empire of Ice Cream, by Jeffrey Ford.

Reading next: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

Okay, then: after an extraordinarily busy month (without going into too many details, we now have a dachshund and a fence, and I’ve now presented my first paper publicly among special-collections-library-folk), it is high time to catch up on my reading.  (One of the great frustrations of busy times is not having enough time to concentrate on reading; there’s such relief in finding an hour to just read at night.)

A couple of weeks after finishing it, I am amazed at my reaction to The Savage Detectives.  It was a book I was often bored or exasperated with, and yet almost instantly after finishing it and skimming through it to capture my thoughts about it, I felt affectionate towards it, and kept finding sections I did enjoy, until now, when I find myself very glad to have read it, still interested in it, and wanting to read 2666 and Amulet, maybe as soon as next year.

I think this is partly an effect of the sandwich structure of the book, with its short, punchy, “diary” sections acting as the bread around a huge, sloppy, Dagwood-style filling of 20 years’ worth of interview, oral history, monologue, and, presumably, savage detection.  The immediacy and directness of the sandwich-sections pull you in and validate the effort of sifting the mass of detail and story and history in the filling.

But enough sandwich metaphors.  Perhaps this is only interesting to me, but I think another aspect of my reaction is that it’s very similar to my reaction to pretty much anything I write myself: everything is tedious and trite and horrible as I’m writing, but once I get a chance to reflect and revise I find it’s not nearly so bad, and actually seems that it was quite a bit of fun to write.  What is it about this book that makes you feel like you’re part of its creation — that it’s writing itself as you read it?

Anyway, that’s how I’m feeling about the book now.  Here’s one of the mysteries I’ve been entertaining myself with: who are the “savage detectives” of the title?  Bolaño is, apparently, often quite cryptic with his titles: I’m told there’s nothing about the number or year “2666” in 2666 (although I think it must have some connection to Cesárea’s prophecy  about events “sometime around the year 2600.  Two thousand six hundred and something”, very near the end of this book).

Nevertheless, it’s such a fantastic, multivalent title (Los Detectives Salvajes in the original) that I’m inclined to explore its meaning.  Here are the savage detectives I see in the book — how they’re detectives, and how they’re savage:

  • The visceral realists.  In the first section, the group seems to be the title’s obvious referent: I think you can see “visceral realist” as a rephrasing of the title, since “visceral” can mean “not intellectual” or “dealing with crude or elemental emotions” (M-W Collegiate, 11th ed.), and both detectives and realists think of themselves as seeking “the truth,” the real state of affairs.  And, indeed, there’s a real sense of exploring the world, and living as a form of detection in (from the US perspective, and ironically/satirically from the Latin American perspective) “savage”/”primitive” Mexico.  But we see them doing little actual “detection” of any but an experiental/metaphysical sort, though they are savage/visceral enough, except for:
  • Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, with the help of Juan García Madero, who go in search, from Mexico City to the Sonora Desert, of Cesárea Tinajero and the 1930s visceral realists of Mexico.  This is certainly a more straightforward kind of detection, as they ask questions, follow leads, investigate libraries and archives, stumble across leads.  There’s also an element of “savagery” in their lack of any social niceties, funds, or apparent clue about what they’re doing.
  • The nameless interlocutor(s) of the middle section.  The section borrows the form of a detective’s notes or audiotapes, each “chapter” beginning with the name, place, and date of the speaker.  You would be tempted to say that this is merely a fictional convenience, a way for the author to get out of the way of the many voices he’s presenting — except that there are times when someone has clearly asked a question to which the speaker is responding, pulling us out of the narrative to wonder what the circumstances are under which the speaker is telling their story.  I wondered, throughout the second section, why the stories were being told: are we to see it as the real-life Bolaño (or fictional Belano) interrogating his fictional creations?  As some obscure academic trying to write the history of the “visceral realists”?  Is it an actual detective or group of detectives, trying to figure out what’s happened to Lima, Belano, Madero, or solve some related mystery?  (The third section does lend some credence to this theory, although it’s impossible to think the thread would be followed for 20 years by a professional.)  At any rate, there’s some savage detection going on in this second section, but it’s impossible to say by whom.
  • Us, the readers.  Reading and writing are forms of savage detection: we work through the narrative, trying to piece together the story, the style, the meaning, the purpose, the theory of the book.  We do so in a kind of primitive state (I felt especially savage in this book, knowing so little about Mexican and Latin American poetry; surely this was unintentional, but it worked), working from incomplete knowledge about the book, its author, its relation to reality.  Somehow, at the end of our investigation, we tell ourselves a story about what happened, and what it meant.
  • Everyone, and especially everyone in this book.  There’s so much travel, so much coupling and recoupling, so much about struggling to find a way to live, a place to live, a way to be in the world: everyone begins to seem a savage detective, steps away from disaster, toeing that hard-boiled line between chaos and order.

So it’s a brilliant title: it works at all the levels of the book’s meaning, and it really resonates long after you’ve read it.

Casts of Characters

December 12, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens and Other Electricities by Ander Monson.

It’s all story, these two very different books agree.  From the perspective of someone even vaguely acquainted with literary history and criticism, these books seem wildly dissimilar and even oppositional: Victorian v. American postmodern, social realist v. belletristic, representational v. poststructuralist.  But to a 13th- or 30th-century person, they could seem very much the same: pretty lies with title pages, single authors, plots and pictures and casts of characters, all in the service of story.

It’s all story in different ways to Dickens and Monson, to be sure.  When I say “it’s all story” to Dickens, I mean that Dickens was a one-man storytelling industry, a factory, a marvelous machine that could create characters and plots and scenes seemingly out of anything.  And I guess that story, narrative,  seemed to him the way that life worked, the way to make sense of things, the way to get things done: see an injustice, write a story that would show people why and how the situation could be unjust to a person they might know, might love, and sometimes (at his best) even why and how the evil behind the injustice might be examined and understood.

Whereas Monson’s “it’s all story” is a little more about calling attention to the structure of the lenses through which we see the world.  To Monson, a conversation is a story; a list is a story; a table of contents is a story; a news report is a story; a diagram is a story; a memory is a story.  Another word for “story” is “fiction,” and another word for “fiction” is “construct.”  Reality is a mosaic of a trillion fictions.  Etc etc; if you were an English major (or minor or whatever) you don’t need to hear this all again.  (It is interesting, really, if only you can separate the idea from the way so many profs are so obnoxious and smug about it, and are so certain that it’s the only way of “reading” the “world.”  I digress.)

Maybe you know that I love those appurtenances of literature known in academic circles as “paratexts,” those pieces of supposed non-story which are nevertheless central to how we read books, to our understanding of how books work and what they are.  As it happens, both of these dissimilar books are pretty heavily paratextual.  Other Electricities in its first (only, so far) edition contains, by my count, 37 pages of paratextual material in a book of only 169 total pages.  (Plus one of these paratextual pages contains a web address where there’s even more.)

And Dickens editions, in this day and age, are crazy with the paratexts; so many students in need of so much help.  This Penguin Classics edition I’m using (God bless ’em; where would the world be without Penguin Classics?) contains a one-page bio of Dickens, an expanded 4-page bio, a 16-page critical introduction, a note on the text, a short bibliography for further reading, a reproduction of the first-edition title page, a reproduction of the original dedication page, three prefaces to different editions (all by Dickens, all reworking similar material in slightly different ways and responding to slightly different grievances Dickens perceived or wanted to cut off at the pass), a detailed table of contents, a cast of characters, and at the end a postscript, two appendices, and explanatory notes.  Good God!  (Not to mention that Dickens does not exactly dive head-first into his narrative once you actually get to the text of the actual novel; Dickens was a throat-clearing sort of writer, it seems to me, and would often write his way into the narrative and into the characters’ lives with little mini-narratives: here, there’s a seven-page satirical genealogical history and a three-page description, almost a prose poem, of an early-winter wind before we meet any characters, Dickens seeming to just enjoy playing around with language, casting a kind of linguistic spell on himself as much as us.)

One of the things I find most interesting about paratexts is their aura of mystery, when you think about them: I mean, who writes this stuff?  And why do so many books look so alike, when you think about it: half-title, title, copyright, t.o.c., etc., etc.?  Am I the only one who’s interested in whether an author writes his own dust-jacket copy and bio?  Does anyone else hate it when there’s no info in a book on the book’s designers or illustrators or cover art?

I digress again (big time).  So both of these books contain long, complicated casts of characters.  In the case of Dickens, I’m not sure when this feature was first introduced, and whether it’s an addition to the text by Dickens for some edition during his life or was included once the book was mainly read in classrooms; however, the short notes certainly have a Dickensian flavor to them.  Characters are “weazen-faced,” “unpretentious but high-souled,” “starched and punctilious.”  It’s oddly ordered, in that there’s an alphabetical list followed by another, shorter alphabetical list, presumably of secondary characters.  Reading the cast gives us some sense of the kind of book we’re in for, and does form a narrative in that sense (although the notes are not revealing of plot, only of character), but I’m sure it’s actually supposed to be most useful for revisiting the work when writing a paper, or when you’ve gotten two characters confused.  A handy checklist, in other words.

In Monson, “A Helpful Guide to the Characters and Their Relationship to Danger, and an Explanation of Some Symbols Commonly Found Herein” is a story itself.  It tells, in a different form, the story we’re about to read, and other stories, too.  Probably my favorite entry in the cast is this:

JOSH: jumps off a cliff into the cold water & the dark below, the snow circling around him & falling on his body; compares himself to Jesus; drives his dad’s car without permission; might cease to exist at any moment; minor character who is barely worth consideration

I mean, that’s just brilliant.  It’s a heartbreaking very short story: that last clause made me give one of those surprised huffs of air that sound like a laugh but are often quite sad.  It’s also a great comment on all those untold stories: all the “minor characters” with major meaning, at least to themselves.  Minor characters in life can have Jesus complexes, too.  And Monson’s “Helpful Guide” shows us that a supposedly objective and non-fictional structure like a list of characters can be — is, in fact, in Dickens as much as Monson — a story we tell, a skewed view on the world and its people.

The Sportscaster in American Literature

November 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: End Zone, by Don DeLillo.

I’m reading this book in a weird little mass-market paperback edition published by Pocket Books in, apparently, 1973.  (The book was published in 1972.)  I picked it up for 50 cents at the Newberry Library Book Fair a couple of years ago, just because it was so damn weird.  Like an artifact from some parallel universe where Don DeLillo books are the kinds of books sold in supermarkets and newspaper kiosks. Judging by the list of Pocket Books’ other publications at the end of the text here, there’s a name for this parallel universe: the 1970s.  They also published Donald Barthelme and Bernard Malamud, $1.95-$2.25 each.  For such a supposedly philistine decade, they were sure doing a helluva lot better than us at making literature available to people.  My copy bears the stamp of a place called “Paperback Exchange” in Reno, Nevada — “We Sell — We Trade.”

Anyway, here’s a shot of the cover (from LibraryThing):

Since this post is basically one big digression, let me also say that the dust jacket of the first edition is one of my all-time favorites; it’s just absolutely gorgeous and simple (also from LibraryThing):

Anyway. I can’t resist sharing the copy on the back cover on the Pocket paperback.  Books’ promotional copy fascinates me — in terms of who writes it and how it gets written, and in its status as a kind of “paratext” — and this is a great example of fairly mysterious, utterly cryptic, and wildly, misleadingly incorrect copy, although not in the way you might expect:


There is a small college somewhere in America where such questions have answers.  There young men gather to study the secrets of the universe; to refine their sexual techniques; to meditate on human folly — and to play hard, belting football.  And there, they learn that God himself is waiting for the outcome of the season.

So, I’m only about halfway through this short book, but I feel safe in saying that, hilarious as this is, it’s not a faithful description of what is actually going on in this book.  The illustration is actually much better for that, tying in as it does the themes of nuclear war, big Texas sky, and, well, football.  (It also makes Myna Corbett thin and pretty where she’s described as kind of fat and ugly; but at least the dress is the right color.)

Also can’t resist quoting this blurb from Nelson Algren, of all people: “If you dug Jack Nicholson’s role in Five Easy Pieces or the fables of Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo is your man.”  Uh, sure, whatever you say, Nelson.  You’re a hip, hip, hip dude.

All of which is a long way around to saying that I still love the specificity and tactility of holding and using a specific copy of a printing of an edition of a book.  It’s somehow thrilling that this book, thin spine broken, hinges wobbly, made its way to a used bookstore in Reno, was dumped at a book sale in Chicago, and now finds itself in North Carolina, useful all around the country across a span of 35 years.

Anyway, a couple of notes before I dive into the actual text in my next post.  Turns out this book was surely some kind of influence on DFW.  I need to reserve judgment on the deeper levels of influence for now, but there are some easy referents and allusions that DFW includes in Infinite Jest.  Beyond the whole nuclear-war-and-sport connection, there’s a player named Onan and a coach named Hauptfuhrer (I maddeningly can’t find it now, although I’m certain there are a few references to a person named Hauptfuhrer in IJ, too.  Or perhaps someone just calls Schtitt hauptfuhrer?)  And then there’s the sportscaster-in-training.  Jim Troeltsch, meet your spiritual father, Raymond Toon: “…Raymond practiced his sportscasting in the room all weekend.  When he wasn’t studying theories of economic valuation, he was camped in front of his portable TV set.  He’d switch it on, turn the sound down to nothing, and describe the action.”

This is the third book this year that’s included this subplot.  There was Ché, in Vineland, admiring Brent Musberger and always framing and commenting upon her life; there was Troeltsch; and now there’s Toon, who narrates a football game he’s ostensibly involved in, as a reserve, from the sidelines, “talking into his fist.”  Troeltsch is a culmination of sorts here, in that we get a sense of the verisimilitude of his practice-sportscasting and thereby a sense of how deeply imbedded and influential event-narrators like TV sportscasters are to us, the Viewing Public.

Like a lot of kids, I suspect, I used to act out sporting events by myself and would call the play-by-play in a kind of half-whisper, half-shout, so I could be heard over the deafening crowd in my head.  (For me, it was mostly basketball and football.)  In high school, I was the P.A. announcer for the football games during my senior year.  I loved this job.  Sportscasters used to be completely ignored, the white noise of TV, but now everything gets talked about and it’s common to have favorites and nemeses, those in whom you perceive a bias and those you think are simply incompetent, etc.  It’s also common to decry the utter banality and pointlessness and clichè-ridden-drivelness of sportscasting.  And I don’t think that’s wrong, most of the time.  But I do think it’s wrong to imagine that the banality and clichèd, regurgitated phrases serve no purpose and are unintentional.  They’re a comfort.  It was comforting, shooting hoops in my driveway and counting down the seconds, or up in the crow’s nest with a view of the football field, calling out “flag on the play” and “Brauer rumbles for seven yards.”  Of course, it’s only comforting if you don’t think about it too much.  If I stop and think about how I’d soaked up so much televised sports by the time I was seven or eight that it was probably the single most familiar and approachable narrative structure in my life — that I could do an utterly convincing job of narrating my imagined sporting events, just as Troeltsch can with real events in his teens — if I think about it, it’s kind of terrifying.  But we’ll get into that in my next post.

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.

The Freedom of Constraint

April 19, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Sharp Teeth.

There was a terrific, seemingly out-of-the blue post on Slate this week by Robert Pinsky, a kind of manifesto on the laziness of complaints on contemporary poetry. I enjoyed it, and his second point was especially appropriate for my current reading. He gives a couple of excellent examples of free-verse poetry.

I am beginning to realize that Sharp Teeth does not belong in this company. I am beginning to wonder if its free verse really is “just prose chopped into lines.”

There are any number of examples I could give. Here’s just one:

They exited the freeway and pulled

into a neighborhood

just east of Huntington Park.

Ray slung the van up a drive and shut off the engine.

He pointed to Frio and Penn and said,

“After you change, hit the back of the house,

and be ready to rush.”

(Sorry, too dense to figure out single spacing right now.)

You see anything poetic there? Anything requiring line breaks besides the clauses of each sentence? Any careful wordplay, alliteration, internal rhyme? I don’t. It’s utilitarian prose. There are some nice flights of fancy in this book, but nothing that couldn’t be contained in prose. Some nice metaphors, turns of phrase, digressions.

I’m having a lot of fun with this book, don’t get me wrong. But what annoys me is that I really could have loved a book that actually was a rigorous piece of poetry about packs of werewolves in L.A. Because there’s a nice tension there, see? The constraint of writing within the urbane, civilized, even antiquated constraints of metric, even rhymed verse could have made an ingenious counterpoint to this book so much about the human and the animal within the human which we all live with. I could even have gone for sections of verse broken up with sections of prose, Shakespeare-style. I’m afraid Barlow wanted this kind of effect, but was either too lazy or too scared to go whole hog. Instead he just broke his sentences up into lines. Too bad, really.

I’m one of those people that thinks what we need in literature (insofar as “we” need anything, overall) is more constraint. I’m an OuLiPo fan, in other words. I adore books written without the use of the letter e. I admire fantastically elaborate linguistic or structural puzzles embedded in novels. I love poetry marrying  torturous demands to gorgeous language.

Shakespeare’s the summit of literature for a reason, right? I mean, mostly because he was a genius, and would have been a genius whenever he lived. But partly, I insist, it’s because he lived at a time that demanded that he place constraints on his passions; that he write his dialogue in iambic pentameter, that he create words to fit that meter, that he structure couplets to end his scenes, that he conform to the rigors of the sonnet and only occasionally take liberties. Shakespeare’s great lines, soliloquies, and speeches would simply not be were it not for his operating within these structures. This is the genius of the OuLiPans. It’s only when we limit the set that things get interesting; structureless freedom in art leads to a multiplicity of tempting, horrible choices (see Art Scene, Contemporary American).

The Thoughts of Others

March 16, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: A Passage to India.

On the train to the Marabar Caves, an expedition lead by Dr. Aziz, Mrs. Moore (in “purdah,” or seclusion of women from public sight, with Adela Questing) reflects on the impending marriage of her son Ronny and Adela (who reconciled immediately after Adela had decided not to marry Ronny).

She felt increasingly (vision or nightmare?) that, though people are important, the relations between them are not, and that in particular too much fuss has been made over marriage; centuries of carnal embracement, yet man is no nearer to understanding man. And to-day she felt this with such force that it seemed itself a relationship, itself a person who was trying to take hold of her hand.

I must pause, here, to make two separate digressions.

Digression A: Besides its importance in the novel, this statement reflects in interesting ways on the Bloomsbury Group, the circle of friends including the Woolfs, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, and others, with whom Forster was friendly (although his actual inclusion in the group is a subject of heated debate among those who care about such things). In the light of what (little) I know about Forster’s biography and about the relations among the Bloomsberries, I suspect that by the unimportance of relationships Forster means their codification, the societal verification of the relationship between two people in marriage, and the necessity of maintaining such a relationship for life. This thought of Mrs. Moore’s could almost be a manifesto of interpersonal relations among the Bloomsberries, who were busily trying to dismantle Victorian proprieties, welcoming sexual experimentation, and having sex with each other and with those outside the group.

Digression B: My copy of A Passage to India (Harcourt, Brace Modern Classics, apparently a 1956 printing) was a $1 purchase at the most excellent Newberry Library Book Fair. It is fairly heavily marked up, especially in the first 150 pages, using red pencil and blue and black pens for underlining and occasional annotation. I would think this indicated two or three different annotators, but the markings and subject matter of interest seems fairly consistent. I suspect all of the markings belong to the Cornell U. student who identifies herself on the front endpapers. (Tina Van Lent, I have your book.) I’m guessing by the fading of the ink and the quality of the penmanship that these are circa late 1950s/early 1960s notes. (Just a guess.)

I mention all of this now, partly just because marginalia interests me, but also because the annotator underlines the passage quoted above heavily, excitedly, and asterisks in the margin by “yet man is no nearer to understanding man” with the note: “point of book.” The annotations of others in second-hand books can often be distracting or annoying, especially those of students who underline everything discussed in class, or everything identifying a new character, or who make really dumb notes in the margins. But they can also be illuminating, interesting, even important. (I recently purchased a copy of a book from the library of the novelist John Fowles — it has his bookplate, which is quite nice — and also includes some marginalia, possibly his, possibly that of the Oxford professor who’d owned it previously.)

Anyway, I don’t know that I would have identified this passage as the “point of book,” but it interests me that a former owner did. This is the kind of thing hard to replicate in e-books, this experience of communion with a former reader through a copy both of you owned. It is one of the things we’d lose if we lost the physical book. The freedom of transmission and marking of a copy of a book would be severely restricted by e-books; to the delight of publishers, I’m sure, who could restrict e-books to use only through passwords or licenses and thereby sell more copies to more users, and do away with “second-hand” copies altogether.

To segue back to the topic at hand. The communion between different minds, and the ways our thoughts circle around ideas and topics in divergent ways, is one of the truly masterful techniques Forster controls in this book. His perspective flits from mind to mind, smoothly moving from one to another, so we hardly notice that we are now thinking like Fielding, now Moore, now Questing, now Aziz. Third-person omniscient, here, but in a way very different from Joyce, whose Ulysses was published a couple of years before this. Unlike that encyclopedic vision, Forster willfully selects the thoughts of his characters, summarizing past thinking and choosing the most important thoughts to show how the views of one character communicate with those of another in ironic, sympathetic, or unexpected ways.

So Mrs. Moore is thinking these rather radical thoughts for an older Englishwoman, and when they reach the caves, and Aziz is trying his best to make them interesting, diverting, the sort of scenery he thinks adventurous Englishwomen would want (not realizing they’ve come only out of politeness, having been told they’d been disappointed he hadn’t arranged the trip yet, and so arranging it out of a feverish desire to keep what he sees as important friendships with Mrs. Moore and Fielding) — as all this is happening, Adela Questing is thinking about her marriage, making her plans, and suddenly coming to the realization that she does not love Ronny, does not believe he loves her, and wondering why it has not even occurred to her to ask until now, when she’s already engaged. She would obviously profit from an honest talk with Mrs. Moore, it would seem: but, Forster seems to ask, how would such a talk occur, in the stultified air of propriety and etiquette the English live in? Even among two fairly independent-minded women?

So Adela climbs among the caves and rocks with Aziz and a guide (Fielding having missed the train, and Mrs. Moore having been appalled by the caves, and deciding not to continue after the first, but instead rest). And deciding she needs to talk about marriage with someone, she asks about Aziz’s marriage. Aziz, weirdly feeling it more “artistic,” says he is married, even though his wife is dead. And then Adela makes a monstrous faux-pas: she asks if Aziz has more than one wife. Deeply offended, he says he only has one, then takes refuge alone in a cave to avoid further embarrassment. Completely oblivious, Adela also goes into a cave, thinking about marriage and how she hates sight-seeing. The chapter ends. And in the space between chapters, the book changes drastically.

We follow Aziz’s perspective into the next chapter, and learn that he pauses in his cave, smokes a cigarette, then comes out to find Adela gone. He curses at his guide for letting her out of his sight, hits the man and causes him to flee. He then sees Adela talking to a Miss Derek, who has just arrived with Fielding in her car. He assumes everything is well, but decides to cover up the fact that Adela had been alone for a while when he talks to Fielding.

When they arrive back at Chandrapore, Aziz is arrested. Adela appears to have accused Aziz of attempting to rape her in the caves.

The interesting thing here is how Forster makes this into a mystery for us, at least in the short term. We have gotten to know and like Aziz, and we’re in his head, seemingly, when the event supposedly takes place. It seems a horrible injustice that is being done to Aziz, especially when the English get all xenophobic and emotional about the state of Adela, who is apparently sick in one of those ambiguous ways Englishwomen were thought to be ill after some excitement or affront. (Seriously, what is the deal here? Does she have a fever? The vapors? Is it all psychosomatic? If so, why do so many women in novels die after falling ill after some horrible incident? They say she’s “in danger,” but I have no idea what that might be. Is this a euphemism — are they checking for sexual contact? Do they just assume she might be ill? She ends up being fine, of course.)

So we are on Aziz’s side, and Forster is careful not to give us any of Adela’s thoughts or perspective for a good 50 pages after the incident. This is important, since we’ve also learned a lot about Adela, and are wondering how these charges, which we feel cannot possibly be true, came to be. Is it part of some wild plot on her part to get out of her marriage?  We cannot imagine either Aziz (and, by extension, Forster) lying to us about what he did up in the caves (we are given explanations for why he fibs to Fielding about the chain of events, and about how he comes across her field glasses outside a cave); neither can we imagine Adela making up such a story out of whole cloth.

The only explanation at this point seems to be that Adela was attacked by the guide, or that there was someone — who knows who? — already in the cave, disturbed by the intruder.  The guide, of course, has fled.  Forster, who has been so careful to show us many minds, many ways of being, suddenly keeps us in the minds of those who were not involved: Fielding, who defends Aziz, and the overreacting Englishmen. It’s excruciating, this interim, as we fear for Aziz and for Fielding and for Adela, not knowing what happened, or how the caves, the dark, mysterious, primordial caves, figure into it.

Is a Pile of Legal Pads the Same as a Book?

February 28, 2008 § 2 Comments

Before I actually get into The Confessions of Nat Turner, I wanted to briefly discuss the weirdness of reading a book while simultaneously digging through the personal papers of that book’s author to put together an exhibit on his life. I suppose I should state the obvious up front: my views are mine alone, and not my employers’. I don’t plan on impugning or libelling anyone, or revealing any “secrets,” but hey, you never know. And I suppose for those who don’t know (if there are any of you out there), I should explain that I’m a librarian at Duke University’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, which holds a large chunk of the William Styron Papers (meaning manuscripts of his works, correspondence, and lots of other things. Here’s a finding aid for the collection, if you wanna see what’s in it.)

It doesn’t sound that weird, I guess, but it is, at least for me. Scholars do it all the time, but in a very different way — typically they’ve already read through a text (most often more than once, if they’ve gotten to the stage of needing to consult its author’s manuscripts) and are consulting a well known source as they work in an archive. I’m reading Nat Turner for the first time, both as research and as personal reading. Duke doesn’t have the manuscripts for Nat Turner, although it has the galleys and a lot of other related material. And it has manuscripts for many of his other works, like Sophie’s Choice.

What’s weird about it is perhaps not what you’d think. Nat was an enormously controversial book when it came out, and there’s a lot of correspondence (mostly supportive; would you write someone whose work you didn’t approve of?) and other materials on the controversy, but that isn’t what’s causing the kind of dissonance I’m getting. It’s not a matter of knowing too much about the book beforehand to read the book on its own terms. No, it’s more the effect of the body of materials as a whole, and especially the drafts themselves of his works.

As you might imagine, working in an archive is an enormously personal, even intimate activity. It can also be extremely misleading: you’re seeing whatever survived, the remnants of a career and a life and not a life in its fullness. Nevertheless, you get a sense of a person when you work with their stuff.

Styron mostly wrote his early drafts on long, yellow, legal-pad-sized sheets of paper, in pencil, with extensive corrections, additions, notes to himself in the margins. He’s got a nice hand, easy to read for the most part, with idiosyncratic t‘s that look like s‘s. He’s said how much of a labor writing was for him, how painful it was; you can kind of feel that in the manuscripts: something about the slant of his hand conveys it, as does the worn, rubbed feel at the margins of some of the pages. That feeling of hard work being done, hard thinking delivered through all those leads of varying sharpness, and rethinking and rewriting being done, the writer handling the pages over and over.

I’m not a “death of the author” person, but I tend to maintain quite a bit of separation between an author and his work. Although I enjoy a good literary biography (and a good biography in general — something very appealing about capturing the arc of a lived life) I tend to care, personally (not professionally), about an author’s biography only insofar as it illuminates the work itself. (I also think that a work that requires biographical info to engage me is probably not something I’m interested in. Plus I am generally disinterested in memoirs, as a genre, although there are exceptions.) I don’t want to get too lit-critty here, but when I’m reading Nat Turner I’ll find myself thinking of how Styron’s hand looks on those long yellow sheets, and I’ll remember all the intermediate stages that come between a first draft like that, fresh from the author’s pencil, and the published work (in ugly library binding, no less!) I have in my hand: all the minds it passed through, all the work by early readers (family, friends), editors, fact checkers, publishers, designers, typesetters, critics, etc. before it reached the published form. The finished book, I guess, seems less like a work of art and more like a… well, a product, produced for practical, business reasons; but also a phenomenon, a thing reaching the world after great travail and continuing through great travail (all those reviews, criticisms, discussions; all its varying manifestations in the separate minds of separate readers!) in both its physical and intellectual forms. The author’s work, all those wild, scrawled yellow pages, domesticated between two covers.

There’s something pleasurable about all this, in one way. And, on the whole, I certainly feel that my working life has informed my reading in lots of interesting ways. To have a better sense of the processes both of publishing and of reception of texts is necessary to many kinds of literary thinking. Thinking about these issues has enriched my reading and has exposed in some works facets I would’ve otherwise overlooked. But in this particular instance of reading an author while exploring his archive, there seems to be something both nearsighted and farsighted about the experience. I feel, just a little, simultaneously estranged from and embarrassingly connected to the work. It’s like a relative you never talk to but with whom you shared a room for a summer. I’ve not quite captured exactly what I mean, but that’s close.

The Combination to Unlock the Vault of My Heart

February 1, 2008 § 3 Comments

So between books is the time when I engage in that futile attempt to catch up with the magazines we subscribe to. (We only get 4 or so; somehow I am always behind by 4-6 months. I have no idea how I do this.) Reading Nick Hornby’s column in a Believer from a few months ago, I came across this: a novel, in blank verse, about werewolves in Los Angeles. And one of the epigrams, sez (probably-compensated-or-even-employed-by-the-book’s-publisher) Amazon reviewer Alexander Chow-Stuart, comes from Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”–a song (and singer) I unabashedly, unironically, unequivocally adore. Apparently this book was, serendipitously, just released in the US. I must have it. Oh yes, I must have it.

So now you know: outlandish formal experiment + classic horror film plot elements + Warren Zevon-inspired author=the combination to unlock the vault of my heart. Use this knowledge only for the good of mankind, please.

Reading at 30,000 Feet

January 27, 2008 § Leave a comment

I’ve been traveling by air quite a bit lately–home to Nebraska, on business to Minneapolis and New York. It’s funny: for all the hackneyed comic routines about air travel (“What’s the deal with those peanuts?”), examinations of the experience itself, once you’re in the air, seem rare and, when you do find them, superficial. (A notable exception: Ron Rosenbaum’s hilarious but thought-provoking analysis of SkyMall products, in Slate.)

What we’re talking about here is one of the great marvels of modern life, an utter miracle that has become so mundane that I can, without batting an eye, use the word “hackneyed” in descriptions of comedians’ complaints about the experience. Flying out from LaGuardia on Friday night, my plane was stuck in the queue to take off for half and hour and everyone on the flight was getting restless, annoyed, fidgety. And then, finally, it was our turn; we hurtled into space; and, thanks to the enormous air traffic of NYC, we were directed to circle around for a while before heading south. The night was wind-swept, clear, crisp. We were treated to a 360° view of Manhattan–this country’s nerve center, the apple of the world’s eye, radiant and golden, its entire length and breadth and height encompassed in the view from my window. The other boroughs sprawled to the horizons, the Statue of Liberty stood with ships passing on all sides, other aircraft whizzed and angled below us. I looked around: maybe ten people were looking out the window. The rest were trying to sleep, preparing iPods for the moment they could be switched on, reading printouts or magazines or books.

Don’t get me wrong: air travel is definitely a pain in the ass, and there are countless things wrong with it. A good book is a godsend for a flight, if only so you can look preoccupied to the chatterbox sitting next to you. But I wonder if we appreciate that many of us now routinely view things in a way that, only a few generations ago, a large percentage of the population would have thought reserved for the eyes of God and his angels.

But I digress. It’s a great pleasure to glance up from your book to the sight of an ephemeral cloud-continent, a sun on the horizon obscured from the ground, or a vast snow-covered plain, a quilt of roads, acreages, towns, and rivers. Dickens or Tolstoy might be the perfect reading for air travel: their all-encompassing social landscapes nicely counterbalanced with the individual, the specific, the episodic and anecdotal. You look out the window and imagine all those lives, down below: the beehive of the world, all of those individuals on their various paths, about their various tasks, bound together in ways you’d never be able to see from the ground. (Not to mention all those lives on the plane with you, with their varied destinations, motivations, inhibitions, and phobias.)

Of course, you can go the opposite direction, as well: the writers of the OuLiPo group, with their emphasis on the innumerable possibilities to be found within rigorous restraints, read very well in mid-air. Life: A User’s Manual, by Georges Perec, is recommended here, as is The Conversions, by Harry Mathews. The mixture in both of these of surrealist incident, wordplay, and human futility is especially compelling when dangling six miles above the earth in a metal tube at high speed, entirely dependent for the continuation of your life on the workings of many, many intricate machines. I’d imagine Beckett is also interesting–I mean, the absurdity of it all!–but I’ve never partaken.

In any case, a flight provides an excellent opportunity to focus, reflect, and ruminate on literature in what passes these days for a distraction-free environment. Get a window seat, rest your eyes on the landscape or the cloudscape, and think about the connections among things, the distances between things, the spaces above the earth that the gods alone used to inhabit.

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