May 21, 2011 § 1 Comment
Finished: Gargantua, by Francois Rabelais.
Reading now: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower.
Reading next: Pantagruel, by Rabelais.
Wells Tower’s “Retreat” is the best short story I’ve read since… well, since reading Chekhov and Tolstoy this past winter. But it’s the best contemporary short story I’ve read in quite a while. And I feel lucky to have read Chekhov recently, because “Retreat” enters into a fascinating — perhaps inadvertent — dialogue with the master’s “Gooseberries.”
The similarity of the stories has been noted before, apparently, by Allan Gurganus. Interestingly, in this interview, Tower says he hasn’t read “Gooseberries” “in years.” (Perhaps this is another case of “cryptomnesia” as it has been suggested that Nabokov had with the earlier story “Lolita” by Heinz von Lichberg?) But there is a scene of what certainly seems like allusion and homage so direct that I assumed that it must be intentional, and which then led to the realization that the stories correspond in a number of ways. Here is part of a swimming/bathing scene in “Gooseberries”:
Ivan Ivanich emerged from the shed, splashed noisily into the water, and began swimming beneath the rain, spreading his arms wide, making waves all round him, and the white water-lilies rocked on the waves he made. He swam into the very middle of the river and then dived, a moment later came up at another place and swam further, diving constantly, and trying to touch the bottom. “Ah, my God,” he kept exclaiming in his enjoyment. “Ah, my God…”
And here is the comparable scene from “Retreat”:
… we made our way down to the tiny pond I’d built by damming a spring behind my house. We shed our clothes and pushed off into the pond, each on his own gasping course through the exhilarating blackness of the water. “Oh, oh, oh, God, it feels good,” cried Stephen in a voice of such carnal gratitude that I pitied him. But it was glorious, the sky and the water of a single world-ending darkness, and we levitated in it until we were as numb as the dead.
Stephen is the suffering-artist brother of the narrator of “Retreat,” Matthew, who has bought the cabin (and the mountain on which it rests) in Maine which Stephen is visiting. They are joined by Matthew’s neighbor, George, a jolly retiree. Just as in “Gooseberries,” we have a trio of two tightly joined characters and a third wheel of sorts. In “Gooseberries” the bulk of the story is taken up by Ivan Ivanich telling a story about his brother Nikolai, who longs to own a country estate and fulfills his dream after his rich wife’s death. Nikolai’s willful insistence on the perfection of his life and his plan despite the “hard and sour” gooseberries his estate has produced seems to echo the final scene of “Retreat,” the fascinating aftermath of the hunt in which Matthew has bagged a moose, and insists on believing it is not diseased despite all evidence to the contrary. (And of course, Ivan and Burkin are also hunters, in “Gooseberries.”)
The richness and complexity of the relationship between Stephen and Matthew, and the way that Tower has painted a defining portrait of American life over the canvas of “Gooseberries,” makes this story a masterpiece. There’s just so much artistry going into that portrait: the unconscious greed, a default state of being, of real-estate speculator Matthew; the impact on the environment reflected in his speculative plans to subdivide the mountain he’s purchased on the cheap; the hairshirt-wearing Matthew; the mini-epiphany of Matthew’s drunken pronouncement, “My life is on fire,” and the way it is shrugged off at the slightest sign of a change in luck, in classic American fashion; the wonderful crescendo of meaning, the thematic and even allegorical brilliance, of the diseased moose, and the implications of Matthew’s choosing not to believe that it will make him sick. Much of this is Tower’s own, but the way that much of it has been transfigured from Chekhov’s story (intentionally or not) does seem to deepen the story’s meaning and impact. After all, Chekhov’s story includes that famous line, “How many happy, satisfied people there are, after all, I said to myself. What an overwhelming force!” The implication of suffering for many in the happiness of some is also very present in Tower’s story, miniaturized in the vicious, parasitic relationship between Matthew and Stephen.
August 12, 2009 § 1 Comment
Now reading: White-Jacket.
Melville is often cranky, but never a crank: he bitches for meaningful reasons, always (although I imagine his bitches were more scattershot and pointless in his life than in his works). The height of his crankiness in W-J comes in his masterful argument against flogging in the American navy.
The discussion of flogging is the most famous aspect of this book, and the portion I’m primarily discussing here (chapters 33 to 36) is not the end of it. Nevertheless, Melville’s rhetoric in this section is so powerful, so fascinating, and so pertinent to the contemporary American reader that I’m compelled to discuss it.
It’s an argument against torture, essentially, and for due process, and for the necessity of all Americans living by American, democratic principles, in uniform or not:
Depravity in the oppressed is no apology for the oppressor; but rather an additional stigma to him, as being, in a large degree, the effect, and not the cause and justification of oppression.
In the American Navy there is an everlasting suspension of Habeas Corpus. Upon the bare allegation of misconduct, there is no law to restrain the captain from imprisoning a seaman, and keeping him confined at his pleasure.
…we assert that flogging in the Navy is opposed to the essential dignity of man, which no legislator has a right to violate; that it is oppressive, and glaringly unequal in its operations; that it is utterly repugnant to the spirit of our democratic institutions…
And if any man can lay his hand on his heart, and solemnly say that this scourging is right, let that man but once feel the lash on his own back…
A little later, in chapter 44, there’s a startling example of the kinds of through-the-looking-glass abuses of power that can result from the absurd faith that those who inflict punishment — in the military, intelligence agencies, or elsewhere — are somehow beyond reproof, beyond oversight, beyond wrongdoing themselves:
The sailors who became intoxicated with the liquor thus smuggled on board by the master-at-arms were, in almost numberless instances, officially seized by that functionary, and scourged at the gangway. In a previous place it has been shown how conspicuous a part the master-at-arms enacts at this scene.
Being chained and flogged by the very same man who has organized and profited from the smuggling that resulted in your punishment: priceless. Worthy of Catch-22.
Then again, Melville’s argument also transforms, in his argument against naval precedents for flogging, into a stunning insistence on American exceptionalism:
But in many things we Americans are driven to a rejection of the maxims of the Past, seeing that, ere long, the van of the nations must, of right, belong to ourselves…. we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time… Long enough have we been sceptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether, indeed, the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings. And let us always remember, that with ourselves… national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we cannot do a good to America but we give alms to the world.
As lamentable as the road this kind of proselytizing eventually led us down might be, the world would be a better place if we had kept foremost in mind the awesome responsibilities that would come with such an ambition. In this argument, as in many other passages in this book which purports to show “The World in a Man-of-War,” Melville reveals himself (at this time, at this point in his life and career, or at least for this argument and in this piece of what he dismissed as job-work) as a True Believer — in America, in that “more perfect Union” that’s so much in the news recently. (This is fascinating to me, because I think Melville was the foremost American pessimist of his time — the one who seemed to see most clearly how lofty and perhaps unattainable its ideals really might be, and what disastrous consequences such unrealistic hopes might have. So rather than “revealed himself,” perhaps it’s safer to say that Melville, through his narrator White-Jacket, takes the persona of the American patriot, its Ideal Concerned Citizen.)
He is making his arguments on the assumption that Americans must be an example for the benighted, barbaric world: that they must hold themselves accountable. And that especially in their implementation of military discipline and law they must conform to their democratic better selves. As much as I hate to be one of those a-holes that keeps harping about it, it does seem to be a lesson we’re still in the process of forgetting.
July 18, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Only Revolutions.
Reading next: We Always Treat Women Too Well, by Raymond Queneau.
Here’s a fact smuggled into the copyright page of Only Revolutions: the book has a descriptive subtitle. It is The Democracy of Two Set Out & Chronologically Arranged.
The Democracy of Two: and right away, we are invited to view the work as an American allegory, something like The Pilgrim’s Progress. (Side note: as a kid, when I first heard of that work, I thought it was funny that its author was named Bunyan, like Paul Bunyan.) Plus one of the characters is named Sam, as in Uncle Sam. And Sam and Hailey refer to themselves as “US,” in caps, throughout.
Then there’s one of the more compelling motifs in the work: the phrase “Everyone [verb]s the Dream but I [verb] it.” The first time it appears in each narrative, in the fifth line, it is “Everyone loves the Dream but I kill it.” And so we’re led to believe that “the Dream” is the American Dream.
But what’s the American Dream? The meaning and its application are as fluid as everything else in this book, but Sam and Hailey, these apparent stand-ins for America, are constantly framing themselves as in opposition to it or outside of it: they’re eternal teenagers, after all (“allways sixteen,” in the book’s phrasing), with teenagers’ typical reflexive insistence on “individuality,” on rebellion against whatever’s there to rebel against, with no real examination of whether the status quo is worth rebelling against, or whether their rebellion takes worthwhile forms.
Then again, America is supposed to be the place where you are free to pursue happiness whatever it may be: the status quo is there precisely to be challenged, to be shown that definitions of liberty, happiness, and reasonable conduct as codified in such things as laws, business practices, and the arts become ossified and need constant reevaluation. One of the most expertly executed facets of this book is the interplay between the real-world events in the chronological sidebar and the lyrical word-collage of the narrative thread. Danielewski gets just right the allegorical import of Sam and Hailey’s adventures and the amount of period detail in the main narrative — such that in the two narrations of Sam and Hailey’s attempts at marriage, the 1990s attempt is equated with a homosexual marriage, the 1950s attempt with an interracial marriage. (That these two marriages, like all of the book’s events, take place in precisely the same place in their respective narratives, thereby reflecting upon each other, is one of the payoffs of the book’s circular structure and repetitive style. Personally, I found the dual marriages one of the more heavy-handed uses of this pseudo-historical technique, not to mention quite confusing in terms of S&H’s character development, but it works really well as agitprop.)
Freedom is what the Dream often comes down too, and the trickiness of negotiating the limits of that freedom. Another of the book’s strategic misspellings comes into play: the word fear is here feer, a rearrangement of free. The progress of Sam and Hailey is fascinating in this light: they are supremely “free” at the book’s beginning, insisting on their abilities to do whatever they want, to destroy and create, to impose themselves on the World: “I’ll devastate the world,” says Sam (Hailey uses “destroy”), “I will sacrifice nothing./ For there are no countries./ Except me. And there is only/ one boundary. Me.” But as they come to know and love each other, this rhetoric softens: there is more “feer,” more concern for the other, less braggadocio and posturing (although it’s interesting to consider whether it is posturing, at the book’s beginning: or are Sam and Hailey also two aspects of a destroyer/creator god: a SHiva, of sorts?) Freedom is the freedom to fear.