Top Fives for 2009

December 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just like last year, here are lists of my top five recent/lesser-known books read in 2009, and top five books read overall in 2009, including classics.

First, the recent/lesser-known list:

5.  Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.  A truly astonishing book/performance art piece.  I suppose I should really have it higher, but it’s like rating Finnegan’s Wake: it barely fits into the same category as other works of fiction.  Certainly worth experiencing, but not exactly a beach read.  (See my four posts beginning here.)

4.  The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño.  The second-most-exhausting book I read this year (see above), but much more readable.  Astounding and encyclopedic in the Melvillean senses.  It makes me both look forward to and dread reading 2666, which will surely eat up most of a summer’s worth of reading either this year or next.  (See three posts beginning here.)

3.  Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen.  A really cool book about doppelgangers, the weather, paranoia and other delusional states, marriage, and how these things all fit together.  It’s one of those books that doesn’t necessarily knock your socks off as you’re reading it, but sticks with you for weeks after you’ve finished.  (See two posts beginning here.)

2.  The Interrogative Mood, by Padgett Powell.  I didn’t write about this for professional reasons, but speaking completely impartially, this book kicks ass.  A series of questions — odd and banal, rambling and terse, hilarious and deadly serious — addressed to the reader by either the author or a slightly unhinged narrator, depending on how you choose to read it.  It gets under your skin; you actually start pondering your responses to these bizarre rhetorical inquiries; you start examining your life, which is one of the things literature is supposed to help us do, after all.  (I actually considered posting my responses to every question until I realized that this would take me weeks to accomplish and I would be revealing some seriously embarrassing things.)

1.  Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.  I’m not sure if Bynum is underrated or overlooked or what, but she should be getting press, after only two books, as one of the great writers working in America today.  This slim little book, a series of stories about the titular seventh-grade teacher, is moving like The Savage Detectives is never moving.  It is gorgeous and thoughtful and it says something that my favorite book of the year is more or less realist literature.  If only all realism were this well done.  (See post here.)

And now for my list including classics:

5.  The Interrogative Mood, see above.

4.  White-Jacket, or, The World in a Man-of-War, by Herman Melville.  Currently neck-and-neck with Pierre for second place on my personal list of Melville’s best books.  A dry run of sorts for Moby-Dick, but quite a successful book on its own terms, as Melville finds his rhetorical voice and rails against injustice in the Navy in some particularly effective passages.  The balance between narrative and digression is not quite there in the way it is in M-D, but it’s close.  (See three posts starting here.)

3.  Ms. Hempel Chronicles, see above.

2.  Villette, by Charlotte Brontë.  Just a fascinating work on every level, including its treatment of genres and its status as a post-Gothic feminist work.  Lucy Snowe is one of the great Victorian characters and one of the great Victorian narrators.  (See five posts beginning here.)

1.  The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki.  It amazes me that this incredible book, enveloped in layers of mystery in both the narrative itself and the history of its writing and publication, is not better known.  (Obviously that’s what happens when you happen to be a Polish nobleman writing in French.)  Exoticism, eroticism, colonialism, metafiction, writing within, across, and between genres, stories within stories within stories, secret societies — it’s tricky and weird and obviously too interesting to be taught in Lit classes though you can teach anything and everything from it.  It helps that I read a lot of it while on a fun vacation to the Pacific Northwest (thanks again, Spiff!); I always remember books I read while traveling.  (See six posts starting here.)

So those are the lists this year; perhaps I’ll post my top-ten of the decade in January.  In the meantime, here’s wishing you happy reading in 2010.

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.

Madame Minerva Gravity and the Moon

February 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Villette.

About halfway through the book Lucy makes one of her recurring points about the misperception of her by those around her: Madame Beck thinks her learned, Ginevra believes her catty and bitter, M. de Bassompierre “the essence of the sedate and discreet,” M. Paul a wild woman.

This is an interesting aspect of the book, this ongoing calibration by Lucy of what others think of her compared to the turmoil she knows in her innermost life.  But I’m most interested here in the name she makes up for herself in the next paragraph, and imagines M. de Bassompierre calling her: “Madame Minerva Gravity.”

Gods (capitalized and not), angels, and demons appear throughout this work.  There are the two Christian Gods, the Protestant (Lucy’s) and the Catholic (all the non-Britons).  There are also the many anthropomorphized attributes that populate Lucy’s thoughts: her Reason, her Imagination, her Hope and Despair, many others.  But of all the powerful deities in the book, one stands out: the moon.

Lucy, for all her attempts to squash her inclinations, is a creature of longing and even passion.  At night, alone and unable to sleep, she thinks, and worries, and speculates.  The moon is somehow her companion in these lonely nights.  And she mentions the moon — how it looked, and looked down on the world — at most of the critical moments in the book.  At times it seems to guide, advise, or comfort her.

There are two remarkable instances of this very near the end of the book.  In chapter 38, “Cloud,” Lucy is given a sedative by Madame Beck when Lucy refuses to sleep, waiting for a visit from M. Paul.  Weirdly, the sedative has the opposite affect, reviving and exciting her.  In the reversal of the earlier chat with Reason, Imagination now bids her rise, and “Look forth and view the night!”  When she does so, Imagination “showed me a moon supreme, in an element deep and splendid.”  She has a vision of the moonlit park, and determines to go there.  It’s clear the moon equates with peace, clarity, and resignation, to Lucy.  But when she gets to the park, her hopes for moonlit peace and reflection are dashed by the false daylight of a festival, and an upsetting appearance by M. Paul and the Jesuit Schemers.

Later, at perhaps the happiest moment in Lucy’s life, the scene is moonlit again: “We walked back to the Rue Fossette by moonlight — such moonlight as fell on Eden — shining through the shades of the Great Garden, and haply gilding a path glorious, for a step divine — a Presence nameless.”  (This passage reminds me of the magical moonbeam of The Master and Margarita.)

Brontë employs the moon motif brilliantly: it figures in some of the most beautiful passages in the book.  The moon is traditionally female, of course.  It’s a satellite, a product of gravity.  And it reflects the sun’s light.  Minerva, as you probably know, is the Roman goddess equating to the Greek Athena.  She’s not the goddess of the moon, although there are some connotations (with owls, for instance).  Artemis is the goddess of the moon: both she and Minerva are virginal, but Artemis is a huntress and a woodswoman while Minerva is urban and rational.  You might say that Minerva stands for the cool, calming aspects of moonlight, and Artemis for the mysterious, mystical aspects.

Somehow the complexities and contradictions of moonlight are right for Lucy Snowe: the mingled traditions of tranquil cool calm and uncontrolled passion and mayhem (werewolves, witches’ rites) reflect her outer and inner selves, her desired and actual states of being.  Likewise, the moon’s status as a reflective satellite, and its presence as the symbol of the night, embody Lucy’s conflict between self-reliance and an utter dependence on those she cares about and that she thinks might care for her: like the moon gets its glow from the sun, she is happy only when basking in the reflected glory of her importance to those she loves.

There’s a bunch of stuff in here about the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, but frankly I think that’s all a ruse: I think Lucy Snowe is a pagan, or maybe an animist.

Hypochondria and the Gothic Imagination

January 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Villette.

There was a reading and reception for Poe’s 200th birthday yesterday at the Duke library — a fine event, with some exceptionally good readings of six Poe works (three prose, three poetry).  Ariel Dorfman, who read “The Cask of Amontillado,” made a great point about how appropriate it was that Poe lived and died in Baltimore, the dividing point between the cold, rational North and the Gothic South, just as his works feature both some of the first detective stories and some of the most overheated Gothic prose ever.

Plus I’ve been reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy very slowly, as bedtime reading, for the last few months.  It is really quite a fantastic read — a page or two at a time is perfect, since the whole book’s basically one big digression after another anyway.  And it has me thinking about all the things we’ve meant by “melancholy,” down through the centuries, and why and how the word and concept persist.

So: let’s talk about mental illness.  Specifically, hypochondria.  Ishmael’s famous “hypos.”  (And the comparison is illuminating: when Ishmael felt suicidal, he was able to run off to sea.  Lucy had no such option; her short trip across the Channel was harrowing enough, and then, if she wanted to keep a measure of independence,  she had to find some place to do respectable work — viz. the passage on p. 329-331 in which Lucy reveals to the de Bassompierres that she is a teacher.)

We now use “hypochondria” to refer to the condition of constant fear of illness; the meaning in the nineteenth century was similar, but referred more to low spirits, melancholy, a depression-like state, with no apparent cause.  I am not a psychiatrist, so I use the following terms as a layman, but what we now call bipolarity and depression seem to have been considered symptomatic of hypochondria.  Oh, and hallucinations could also be a symptom, in some cases.

Of course, you can find Gothic and/or Victorian attitudes toward psychology and mental illness discussed ad nauseam; and you can even find studies of Brontë’s writing and the psychology of the time in books like this.  It can all seem fairly played out.  But personally, I never seem to get tired of the subject: the time was the crossroads between so much superstition and speculation and so much new science, thought, and experimentation.  That pre-Freudian century contains so much potential energy in the enthusiasms for phrenology, spiritualism, evolution, utopian thinking and living.  Plus, no matter how much Brontë is contextualized and demythologized, Charlotte really does seem a special case, and Lucy Snowe — well, Lucy Snowe’s something else entirely.

(A crabby aside: the academic party line now seems to be contextualizing and historicizing the Brontës, products of their time and environment and all that.  I hear this from profs, I see it in books and articles.  Now, I know the Brontës have been considered these utter anomalies, writing their wild imaginings in the hinterlands, but must we really insist that no one is special, that there’s nothing strange or amazing about these sisters’ writings, that they’re just products of their historical moment((s), I’m sure the lit profs would add) like all the others?  Can we keep the humanities at least a little non-scientific, please, and savor something that smacks of miracle?  I know, I know: no one’s getting tenure savoring a miracle.  End crabby aside.)

Hypochondria pops up over and over again in Villette, and there are times when Lucy certainly does seem clinically depressed or manic.  The writing at the times of depression can be quite heart-wrenchingly sad and beautiful.  Chapter 15, “The Long Vacation,” when Lucy becomes desperately lonely and resorts to a Catholic priest’s confessional, and the beginning of chapter 24, as she suffers a seven-week silence from Dr. John, are especially memorable.  But the two episodes most directly touched by hypochondria (so far, at least) are the appearances of the ghost-nun and the king of Labassecour.

The nun, a legend of Madame Beck’s school, appears to Lucy in chapter 22, and the circumstances are quite intriguing.  Lucy has received her first letter from Dr. John, and read it in the garret, and been made very happy by its warmth and “good-nature.”  (Lucy, that tricksy narrator, is coy on this throughout, but I do think she is in a fairly conventional kind of love with Dr. John, even if she doesn’t admit it to herself.)  “The present moment had no pain, no blot, no want; full, pure, perfect, it deeply blessed me.” Then we get a remarkable run of paragraphs — I love how the textures and rhythms of this passage telegraph their Gothic-ness but nevertheless powerfully build suspense:

Are there wicked things, not human, which envy human bliss?  Are there evil influences haunting the air, and poisoning it for man?  What was near me?…

Something in that vast solitary garret sounded strangely.  Most surely and certainly I heard, as it seemed, a solitary foot on that floor: a sort of gliding out from the direction of the black recess haunted by the malefactor cloaks.  I turned: my light was dim; the room was long — but, as I live! I saw in the middle of that ghostly chamber a figure all black or white; the skirts straight, narrow, black; the head bandaged, veiled, white.

Say what you will, reader — tell me I was nervous or mad; affirm that I was unsettled by the excitement of that letter; declare that I dreamed: this I vow — I saw there — in that room — on that night — an image like — A NUN.

Dr. John soon diagnoses this as an effect of hypochondria, and I, at least at first blush, am inclined to agree.  The image of a silent, celibate woman — one of the dreaded Catholics, no less — appearing to Lucy after a glimmer of romantic hope is simply too powerful to resist as a figure out of her own mind.  The nun reappears to Lucy thereafter, and there remains some degree of Gothic mystery about whether the nun actually is a ghost.

But turn it around: what if it’s not a phantasm of sexual fear and frustration or some long-lost relative of Lucy’s, but a bloody ghost?  What if it’s an affront to Reason?  There is, after all, the remarkable dialogue between Lucy and her Reason on p. 265-6 (beginning at no. 19 in the e-text), and the ensuing castigation of the “hag” Reason to the glorification of Imagination and Hope. What if the nun is exactly what Lucy Snowe needs to acknowledge as the reason behind her impulse to flee to the continent — the missing (or repressed) part of herself?

The other remarkable passage on hypochondria is Lucy’s observation of the king, sitting in the royal box at a concert Lucy attends with Dr. John, and her recognition in him of a kindred spirit:

There sat a silent sufferer — a nervous, melancholy man.  Those eyes had looked on the visits of a certain ghost — had long waited the comings and goings of that strangest spectre, Hypochondria.  Perhaps he saw her now on that stage, over against him, amidst all that brilliant throng.  Hypochondria has that wont, to rise in the midst of thousands — dark as Doom, pale as Malady, and well-nigh strong as Death.

And but so here it is again, in another form: the great white shark of pain.

The Lost Art of the Complex Narrative Metaphor

January 24, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Villette.

I’m reading this book at the behest of my wife, Jaime; we occasionally like to make each other read something we love that the other probably wouldn’t get around to.  She read it after a long string of 19th-century books featuring typically selfless heroine-martyr female characters and was blown away by the complexity of Lucy’s character and narration.  “You’ve got to watch yourself with Lucy Snowe,” she told me.  “She lies.”

Brontë really does do some strange, brilliant things with her narrator: things that remind me of Nabokov, and maybe even Laurence Sterne.  As those names suggest, the book can feel both archaic and modern, sometimes simultaneously.

For instance: the beginning of chapter four.  The first two paragraphs of this chapter employ a technique that’s more or less never used anymore: the use of an extended, complicated metaphor as a narrative device, pushing the plot along in a kind of encoded message just short of allegory.  You see this in Victorian literature frequently; I think it died out with modernism’s disdain for the flourishes and fillips of Victorian prose.

Lucy refuses to say much of anything about her family (or lack thereof?); it’s impossible to tell if her family has died, or is estranged, or abusive, or what, exactly.  Instead of telling us what happens in the eight years after the opening scenes, she assigns to us, the readers, a “conjecture” that she was happy to go home, and spins around this a metaphor of a “bark” floating along merrily in the sunshine.  “A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion; why not I with the rest?”

So, okay, we’re already just playing along with Lucy, and already cannot say with any certainty what actually happened to her.  Then she says that, if that metaphor of the calmly floating boat was accurate, she “must somehow have fallen over-board, or that there must have been a wreck at last,” and talks of a “nightmare” along these lines of drowning; whether this is an actual nightmare or still a metaphoric nightmare of remembering something in those eight years is impossible to say.  Finally, “the ship was lost, the crew perished.”

Lucy moves us through eight years without actually telling us one thing that truly happened: instead, she employs a metaphor that she herself disputes the validity of.  It is impossible to say if the constituent parts of her metaphor (ship, steersman, storm, crew) function allegorically, standing for events and people in Lucy’s life, or are merely conveniences to capture the emotional landscape through which Lucy moves to the present of the novel.

This is brilliant.  We get a sense of what that time entailed, but more importantly, we get a strong sense of how powerfully Lucy wants to avoid confronting the details of that time; how deeply she feels it still and how distant she tries to keep it from her thoughts.  There is both expression and repression in the convolutions of metaphor.

She does it again in chapter 12, pages 124-25, provoked by a real storm this time.  (The Gothic and Romantic elements in the book are palpable here, and really quite ingenious, I think.)  This is another of my favorite passages in the book so far: Lucy looks at the moon on a calm night, and recalls how it looked “leaning back on azure, beside an old thorn at the top of an old field, in Old England,” during her childhood.  (What a brilliant turn of phrase — “leaning back on azure!”)  And it recalls her childhood to her.  Then we get what seems one of the key paragraphs in the book:

Oh, my childhood!  I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel.  About the present, it was better to be stoical; about the future — such a future as mine — to be dead.  And in catalepsy and a dead trance, I studiously held the quick of my nature.

I mean… good Lord!  What are we to make of that?  What are we to feel towards this girl, and towards the older woman recalling that level of repressed despair and grief?  That level of repressed life? (Well, here’s what I felt: sympathy; horror; some level of queasy recognition.)

But Lucy goes on to recount a night of thunderstorms; she gets out on the roof and sits in the rain, wind, and lightning, feeling a kind of wild, Romantic kinship with nature.  She feels a “longing” for a release from her “present existence.”  In the midst of this scene of psychology projected onto nature, we get another, stunning, bruising extended metaphor:

This longing, and all of a similar kind, it was necessary to knock on the head; which I did, figuratively, after the manner of Jael to Sisera, driving a nail through their temples.  Unlike Sisera, they did not die: they were but transiently stunned, and at intervals would turn on the nail with a rebellious wrench; then did the temples bleed, and the brain thrill to its core.

She then returns to the calm night, watching the moon, but extends the metaphor of Jael and Sisera (from Judges 4): Jael, “the stern woman,” watches over her captive Sisera, captain of the Canaanites’ army, while waiting for her husband, Heber, but does not drive the nail through his temples; instead, “something like an angel — the Ideal!” soothes Sisera, just as Lucy feels hopeful in “the cool peace and dewy sweetness of the night.”

So there’s some serious sexual longing and repression going on here.  Lucy’s calm hopefulness is shattered by a love letter falling down to her secret resting place; and while she says (to herself and to us) that she “did not dream… for a moment” that it was for her, we feel for her; we know she let herself hope, at least for a moment.  We read between the lines of her complicated metaphor to the desperate loneliness and desire she feels.  It was no easy thing, being an unattached, “independent” woman (voluntarily or not); does Brontë invite us to feel sorry or elated for her, that she so often drove the nail into the temple of her desire?

The Uncanny Doll-Child

January 22, 2009 § 6 Comments

Now reading: Villette, by Charlotte Brontë.

Dolls are creepy; homunculi are creepy; children, in fact, are often creepy, and not just in horror movies.  All are much creepier if they’re Victorian.

It takes all of four pages for us to meet a very strange child, who seems something like a doll, something like a homunculus (homuncula?), something like a dream.  Paulina Mary, step right up: you are a first-ballot admission to the Creepy Victorian Children Hall of Fame.

I’m just baffled by this character.  When we first meet Paulina she’s bundled up like a baby, but she says, “Put me down, please, and take off this shawl.”  We learn that “she appeared exceedingly tiny;  but was a neat, completely-fashioned little figure, light, slight, and straight.”  In other words, not a dwarf or midget, but a kind of miniature adult.

She seems somehow an utter failure as a depiction of a child but strangely convincing as one, too.  While she domineers and speaks in her polite English gentlewomanly way, and sews like a little housewife, she also clings desperately to her father when he visits, and dotes on him in creepy-Victorian-child ways.  And when her father leaves again, she is disconsolate, as any child would be; Graham, Mrs. Bretton’s son (who earlier, in a surrealistic touch, “caught her up with one hand, and with that one hand held her poised aloft above his head”; I imagine her indignantly standing on the palm of his hand), picks her up in his arms one night and soothes her.  She transfers her doting to him, instantly, and is horribly conflicted when the call comes for her to rejoin her father on the continent.  (The exchange between Lucy and Polly before her departure, on p. 35-36 of this Modern Library edition, is fantastic.)

This all seems very wrapped up in the fact that Polly’s mother has just died; and that seems wrapped up in Brontë’s biography, and her own strange childhood.  Perhaps more will be made of Paulina later in the book — although it seems that perhaps it will not be; that she wanders into the first 30 pages and then right back out — again, like a dream.

These early chapters, incidentally, also do a great job of establishing Lucy’s distinctive voice and character.  My favorite paragraph so far, I think, is this, after Paulina’s father has left.  The last line just kills me; what a way to reveal the narrator’s name!

It was low and long; a sort of “Why hast thou forsaken me?”  During an ensuing space of some minutes, I perceived she endured agony.  She went through, in that brief interval of her infant life, emotions such as some never feel; it was in her constitution: she would have more of such instants if she lived.  Nobody spoke.  Mrs. Bretton, being a mother, shed a tear or two.  Graham, who was writing, lifted up his eyes and gazed at her.  I, Lucy Snowe, was calm.

What a line!  Lucy Snowe, indeed!

(An interesting connection: just a couple of chapters later, Lucy, criticizing Madame Beck’s lack of mercy,  says of her, “Not the agony of Gethsemane, not the death on Calvary, could have wrung from her eyes one tear.”  Like you didn’t cry when Paulina felt as forsaken by her father as Christ did, Lucy?  What a strange, duplicitous narrator Lucy promises to be!)

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