Top Five for 2010

December 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Here’s my top five for 2010, absolute no-brainer classics that everyone knows they should read excluded:

5.  The Jade Cabinet, by Rikki Ducornet.  About the (mostly male) urges to possess, consume, destroy; madnesses and neuroses; memory and Memory (our narrator) and the many ways to tell a story.  It’s much like Pynchon if Pynchon were a prose poet and not an onslaught of words and ideas.   (That’s a good thing.)  I wrote a little about it here.

4.  Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.  If Mitchell had just published a novella entitled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everythin’ After,” this would still be on this list.  (Maybe even higher.)  That brilliant dystopia is the heart of this sextet of nested stories, both structurally and emotionally: it’s the only piece here that really made me feel, but it’s fascinating how this impact was, in large part, due to the story’s connection to those less affecting tales that preceded (and followed) it.  The whole thing is ingenious and envy-inducing, if you appreciate narrative structure.  See this post.

3.  Possession, by A.S. Byatt.  As I said in this post, it’s the perfect postmodern romance.  Also the second book on this list that examines the Victorians in really productive ways that also make you marvel at how much was lost in the 20th century’s march toward replacing humanity with machinery, bureaucracy, circuitry.

2.  The Manyoshu.  (Apologies for missing macrons on the o and u.)  The great 8th-century anthology of Japanese poetry, which I read in a version translated by a committee of Japanese scholars in the 1930s.  (Some interesting social/political implications there, of course, as a presentation of Japanese culture to the world.)  Profoundly moving, seen as a whole: a window onto a culture committed to the conveying the beauty of the natural world, to creating sense-pictures in words.  I especially love the poems of Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, a “saint of poetry” in Japan.  His poems on separation from his wife and her death are Shakespearean in their grief and anger at the phenomenon of death, but indelibly Japanese in idiom and approach.

1.  At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien.  I never posted about this, which is stupid on my part, because this is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.  It’s a kind of masterpiece, and part of what makes it so great is that it starts out by just baffling you, so that everything that comes after is this absurd, delightful surprise.  It’s become what the kids call a “cult classic” among lit-nerd types, mostly due to bad timing: published in 1939, in direct opposition to the prevailing mood in Europe, most of the edition was destroyed in the Blitz.  Joyce loved it; so did Gilbert Sorrentino, who paid homage to and cribbed from it in Mulligan Stew (which I, weirdly, read before At Swim-Two-Birds).  Through the power of “aesthoautogamy,” an author in an undergraduate’s story brings his characters to life, and lives with them, and chaos of all sorts ensues.  It’s linguistically anarchic and wonderful, it’s full of fantastic Dublin dialogue and parodies of academic language, it’s somehow both silly and deep.

Grappling with the Evil American Curator

October 13, 2010 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Possession, by A.S. Byatt.

Now reading: The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning.

Possession is just a freaking brilliant book — one of those freaking brilliant books that’s freaking brilliant in that particular way that deflects both criticism and explication.  You want to explain to someone what Possession is about, you hand them the book and tell them to dig in.  It’s great at explaining itself.  It’s the perfect postmodern romance, which is exactly what it sets out to be.  It seems sort of criminal that it’s not on any of those “Books of the Century” lists, which I can only blame on the blatant ageism evident on those sorts of lists.  (How dare anyone suggest good writing is evident after 1970?)  It’s that good.

All of which makes this an odd entry to restart this enterprise after a two-month hiatus.  It was great fun, as I was reading, charting the ways that Byatt wove into her text the various meanings and interpretations of “possession,” the powerful connotations of her self-proclaimed “Romance,” the points at which the narrator steps back and explains to us that we are reading a novel in a long tradition of novels, a narrative that draws upon many other kinds of narrative — but hey, it’s all in there.  Read the book and you’ll see the same things I did.  You’ll see the same powerful critiques of academia and the whole literary-historical enterprise that I did, as well, and maybe you’ll even enjoy them as much.

Instead, I’ll address myself to Byatt’s exploration of the trade in literary manuscripts and artifacts, and her magnificent, malevolent creation, the Evil American Curator, Mortimer Cropper.  Byatt actually does a much better job with this aspect of the work than I expected: overall, the machinations by which manuscripts make their way from private to institutional hands, and the ways in which access is provided to same, are fairly true to life, with concessions to the needs for narrative tension, conflict,  and drama.  I love the initial action of the book, that scene in which Roland finds that Ash’s copy of an important book, now held by the London Library, has never been viewed and is actually a treasure trove of notes.  (Given cataloging backlogs everywhere, and especially in Europe, this, too is at least plausible, but not likely. It did give me the false impression, initially, that Ash was not such a well known and important figure as he ended up being; if he was such an important figure in Victorian lit, surely another scholar would’ve been by to see this copy, and surely it would’ve been cataloged as Ash’s.)  There’s even a crucial and gripping (gripping!) discussion of copyright law near the end, that ends up being one of the truly pivotal moments of the entire work.

But then there’s Mortimer Cropper.  Possession springs from a period (arguably ongoing) of great English angst about the removal of collections of authors’ papers and historical documents to American libraries, spurred by the large sums of money offered to English writers and collectors.  Cropper here stands in as the archetypal Evil American Curator: possessed (ahem) of a  blank checkbook thanks to wealthy industrial patrons, and further possessed of an unquenchable thirst for the cultural cache that the documents and artifacts of English Literature can provide to young, striving institutions (and young, striving curators), he drives prices for desirable artifacts and manuscripts to ludicrous heights.  He thinks nothing of cultural heritage or the symbolic importance of so many unique materials leaving their homeland: English Literature belongs to the world, and his department/institution/nation studies English Literature as intensively as any English institution does.  He wants the stuff — is possessed by the desire to possess the narrative the documents represent, not only the documents themselves.  Byatt points out the mystery at the heart of all archival collecting: why do we care about the things themselves?  We do we not photograph/photocopy/scan/digitize and let originals crumble to dust?  While Cropper makes his pitch for the perfect climate, storage conditions, and access he can provide to researchers from around the world, he also takes furtive photographs of the objects he desires, and at one point Byatt shows us his love of these surrogates as much as of the originals he pays vast sums of other peoples’ money for.  Possession is a matter of knowing as much as having, throughout this book.

The critique of the collecting of elite American libraries embedded, here, in the person of Mortimer Cropper, is really quite well done, and makes a polemical point with a good deal of subtlety and narrative force.  The story needs a villain, and Cropper is a good one: as someone who works at an American library and collects English literary materials, it was surprisingly easy to root against him, when I sometimes find myself in his position (though I try not to be so doggone evil about it).  Of course he’s an exaggeration — but if I was an Englishwoman like Byatt, I’d probably make him the same kind of exaggeration.  I must say that I did somewhat resent Byatt making him a furtive collector of porn, but even there the thematic importance of the characterization was not excessive.  Nothing telegraphs Evil American Curator like dabbling in Victorian erotica, after all.

Lucy Snowe’s Tiny Universe

February 10, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Villette.

Reading next: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, by Daniel Paul Schreber.

Moving on now, but a few more quick thoughts before we leave Lucy Snowe’s world behind:

-I never did really say anything about three of my favorite scenes: the play in chapter 14, in which Lucy is talked by M. Paul into playing a foppish man but refuses to dress entirely as a man, then goes off book and acts out a scene of wooing Ginevra for Dr. John’s benefit (this chapter should just be called “Grad Student’s Paradise,” for gosh sakes); chapter 19, “The Cleopatra,” in which Lucy hates Rubensesque female portraits and M. Paul begins to tease Lucy for being a scandalous sexpot (but does he really actually have her pegged?); and the amazing “Vashti” episode, in which Lucy attends the theatre with Dr. John and the combined passions of Lucy and the actress Vashti seem to start an actual fire which leads to Paulina’s salvation by Dr. John (I like to think Vashti is actually playing Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, but probably not).

These are all high points in the novel, not just as dissertation-fodder but as brilliant examples of the craft of writing and of character development.  The introduction in my Modern Library edition by A.S. Byatt and Ignes Sodre is really great on these scenes.  It’s actually one of the best introductions I can remember, although, like most introductions, it’s best saved until the end.  (I never read introductions first.  Seriously, why are these not afterwords?  Must be something with marketing.)

-The Vashti episode leads me to another point: Lucy’s is a very concentrated, condensed, even claustrophobic universe.  Everyone shows up over and over; somehow everyone she knew in England moves to Labassecour.  It is a funny thing to do in a book so much about Lucy’s loneliness and her longing for a companion to surround her with a de facto family she can’t seem to shake.  I think partly it was simply demanded of the novel of Brontë’s time to have a cast that worked like this, appearing in each of the three volumes; but the coincidences and reappearances also work against the grain of Lucy’s narration.  People do care about her; she is never alone, never isolated, for better and for worse, and the one time she reaches out from a deep isolation and depression she finds someone (Pere Silas) intimately connected to those she already knew.

-What I’m left with from this book, most of all, is Lucy Snowe’s voice, her narration, her insistence on telling things her way.  She is tricky, indeed.  The ending is, I think, brilliant, and perfectly like Lucy, and perhaps a marvelous unraveling of the mystery of the shipwreck-metaphor I talked about a couple posts back.

In a perfect coincidence of my own, I read Ander Monson’s essay “The Guilty I” in The Believer while in the thick of Villette.  It was perfect for thinking about Lucy: the infuriating way you sometimes know you’re not getting the whole story, the difficulty or impossibility of burrowing back into former manifestations of yoursel — of bearing eyewitness to the “I.”  What we end up with when we dig deeply into our memories are often fictions, constructs based on life experiences.  Just like Lucy; just like Charlotte.

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