Dickens, Beckett, Domesticity, and Modernism

February 4, 2012 § 3 Comments

Finished: Malone Dies and The Unnamable, by Samuel Beckett; Bleak House, by Charles Dickens.

Reading now: A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds, by Mac Wellman.

Reading next: Dubliners, by James Joyce.

It is an exaggeration, but an interesting one, to say that modernist literature is a reaction to Dickens.  In his massive popularity (and desire to be and remain popular), his embrace of transparent plot and familiar character, his omnipresent sentimentality, and his fastidious avoidance of any mention of sex, he represents a nicely dialectical figure for the modernist authors. From Henry James to Woolf and Joyce, the modernists found Dickens ridiculous and bourgeois.

Read the Victorian fabulist/realist master Dickens in close proximity to the modernist/postmodernist master Samuel Beckett and you can feel like these two men inhabited completely different universes, completely different ways of experiencing and translating the experience of being in the world.  But as I was reading Malone Dies, I found myself thinking of Dickens, and seeing the text as a kind of unwitting reply to one of the dominant themes in his work (as in much of Victorian literature): belief in domestic bliss, in the comforts of home.

It was the story of the Lamberts, especially, that brought this to mind.  All of Malone Dies — and, to a lesser degree, all of Molloy, and to a greater and more overt degree, all of The Unnamable — is self-conscious of the creation of fictions and exposure of the mechanisms by which narrative is produced.  The Lamberts are one of the many attempts by Malone to distract himself, to tell a story, this one about a farming family for whom the young creation of Malone named Saposcat is boarding.  Malone introduces the family by saying, “There was the man, the woman, and two children, a boy and a girl.  There at least is something that admits of no controversy.”  But this quick, self-consciously “normal” nuclear family is immediately made weird: “Big Lambert” has married his “young cousin.”  Nothing all that weird about that, according to Victorian/Dickensian mores; after all, there is the bizarre (to us) engagement of Esther and Jarndyce in Bleak House.  But Lambert has also been married two or three times before, with children from these past marriages now grown.  And Lambert is a butcher, of both animals and his family, with an omnipresent threat of violence hanging over his wife and children.  Beckett also brings sex to the foreground of the domestic situation, in the crudest possible terms.

Sapo’s place in the family is as the hard-working unfortunate lad, the Copperfield of the narrative.  But Mrs. Lambert is no kind caregiver; instead, she often pauses in her hard work to give voice to “angry unanswerable questions, such as, What’s the use?”  And Sapo cannot stay with the family, but flees.  There are faint, faint echoes of Copperfield’s trek to Betsey Trotwood’s house in Saposcat’s journey.  But the quality of despair in Saposcat’s journey is so very different than in Copperfield’s irrepressible optimism:

My bed at night was under another haystack, where I rested comfortably, after having washed my blistered feet in a stream, and dressed them as well as I was able, with some cool leaves.  When I took the road again next morning, I found that it lay through a succession of hopgrounds and orchards…. I thought it all extremely beautiful, and made up my mind to sleep among the hops that night: imagining some cheerful companionship in the long perspectives of poles, with the graceful leaves twining around them.  -David Copperfield, chapter 13

But the face of Sapo as he stumbled away, now in the shadow of the venerable trees he could not name, now in the brightness of the waving meadow, so erratic was his course, the face of Sapo was always grave, or rather expressionless.  And when he halted it was not the better to think, or the closer to pore upon his dream, but simply because the voice had ceased that told him to go on.  Then with his pale eyes he stared down at the earth, blind to its beauty, and to its utility, and to the little wild many-coloured flowers happy among the crops and weeds. -Malone Dies

Beyond that, Beckett (through Malone) continually points to how “traditional” narratives are constructed, with such asides by Malone to himself as, “That’s it, reminisce” and hesitant corrections of the course of the narrative.  It does seem that Beckett and Dickens would find in each other perspectives on the world that the other could not possibly countenance.  The experience of the twentieth century makes it hard for any of us to fully participate in the Dickensian comedy, as much as we love and aspire to it.  Beckett could not write the family as a utopia any more than Dickens could imagine an irredeemably dystopian and solitary world.

Chekhov’s Gooseberries, Tower’s Moose

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.

The Twelve Year Olds

February 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

Finished a while ago: The Graveyard Book.

Now reading: The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers.

Reading next: GraceLand, by Chris Abani.

One of the worst years of my life so far was when I was twelve.  I was just a mess of self-imposed fears, ridiculous longings, critical examinations of my own clueless dorkiness.  Seventh grade: irrationally terrified of two eighth graders who I thought were out to humiliate me (and kind of were, but no more than other kids), pining away for an older girl with whom I had zero chance, dreaming of impressing and being befriended/adopted by my teacher and basketball coach, throwing myself into religion as a bulwark against all this confusion (yeah, between that and reading all that Tolkien, the kids’ll totally realize you’re not a dork).  It all seems more or less standard issue, now; at the time there were many days like a feverish nightmare.

As it happens, The Graveyard Book and The Member of the Wedding have both gotten me thinking about that crappy year that I mostly prefer to forget.  “Nobody Owens’ School Days” in Gaiman’s book tells of the ill-conceived attempt to sneak eleven-year-old Nobody into school, to assimilate him into society in a gentle, subtle way.  In a brilliant metaphor for the experience of many kids at this time, Nobody uses his ability to “Fade” to avoid drawing attention or even being remembered by his classmates and teachers.  But Nobody can’t stand to see the school bullies shaking smaller kids down for lunch money; he ends up confronting the two bullies, first in a straightforward way, then using his ability to “Dreamwalk” into their dreams to warn them to stop if they don’t want him to keep giving them nightmares and terrifying them in other ways, as well.

It’s an interesting chapter.  Gaiman walks a fine line here, in that the chapter is a bit of a revenge fantasy, but he does not wrap things up with a PSA about the bullies learning to change their ways and Nobody learning to get by at school, or with a straightforward well-deserved humiliation of the bullies in front of their classmates.  Instead, Nobody really goes too far, overcompensating for the bullying (which is really pretty minor stuff) by giving the bullies truly terrifying nightmares and scaring the bejesus out of them when they’re alone and vulnerable.  He underestimates what terrified people will do, and gets himself in trouble with the law, leading to Silas having to get run over by a police car to bail him out.  Then he scares one of the bullies even worse, a rather cruel act that will surely haunt her for a long, long time.  (This is what surprised me: it’s really quite out of line for Nobody to suggest to a twelve-year-old girl that he’s going to haunt her forever, when her bullying will probably pass in a couple of years.  And it’s somewhat daring, even dangerous, for Gaiman to suggest that bullies deserve this sort of payback, in a book geared towards kids of precisely this age.  But then, it’s absolutely true to what an eleven year old with that sort of power might do.)  And then he simply leaves.  He quits school.  All of this is much more true to the experience of life at this time than typical representations of pre-teens, literary or otherwise.  You have no sense of scale — everything in your life seems huge — and you have weird new attributes and you want to punish, love, and be elsewhere all at once.

It’s still not as true to my twelve-year-old experience as the first part of The Member of the Wedding, though.  This is the best rendering of a (or at least, my) twelve-year-old’s consciousness I’ve come across.  It has a perfect first paragraph — an unusually long first paragraph, which establishes both the themes and McCullers’ unique rhythm and language beautifully.  Here are the famous first four sentences:

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old.  This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member.  She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world.  Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.

Frankie’s in the throes of early adolescence, and she has that twelve-year-old longing to have it over with already: not “to be left somehow unfinished,” as she sees everything around her, but completed, in the wholeness of childhood or full maturity, not to be the “Freak” she feels herself.  But more than anything else that I’ve read, what McCullers captures perfectly is the twelve year old’s desire for a new family, the tendency for outsized attachment to those just on the other side of the transformation you’re just beginning.  With Frankie, it’s her brother and fiancee, about to be married.  She conceives a plan to leave with them after the wedding, and live with them in the exotic-sounding Winter Hill, a town that sounds as far away as possible from the Southern August she’s living through.  These crackpot schemes, these crazy devotions to people you’ve just met or haven’t seen for years: it’s twelve-year-old syndrome all over, and it’s not likely to end well.

It Takes a Graveyard

February 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.

Reading next: The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers.

In the aughts Neil Gaiman went from being a sort of byword for coolness with the literary-fantasy crowd to being the Second Coming of Stephen King.  He’s another one-man industry, generating a remarkable amount of product in any different number of formats and genres.  Now, I’m exaggerating here: Gaiman’s output is not nearly as metronomic as King’s (who claimed to be retiring a few years back — remember that? — but simply could not stop himself from producing novels), nor is his work as repetitive, nor does Gaiman seem as loose as King at lending his ideas and characters out for brand-expansion and remakes and prequels and whatnot.  (Though he is a little more laissez-faire with comics, it would seem, and the idea of him allowing an American Gods comics series without his direct input is not that farfetched.)

But the comparison’s instructive, and I don’t mean to use it disparagingly.  I love Stephen King, warts and all.  He and Gaiman are very different writers.  The remarkable thing about King is the energy with which he still writes, the investment he still has in his work, the raw power of his narrative which can still be quite engrossing long after the (relatively few) patterns of Stephen King story have been established.  With Gaiman, the most remarkable thing has been the quality he’s maintained.  His prose and story construction are fine, his conceits are frequently brilliant, his characters are compelling and diverse, across and between genres and formats.  I don’t think Stephen King’s a hack, but with Gaiman you never even need to worry about mounting the defense.  It’s bloody obvious he’s not a hack.  He’s damned good.

It is impossible to imagine King writing something even remotely like The Graveyard Book: it’s just not in his range.  Nevertheless, part of me wouldn’t mind seeing the Stephen King version of the story, because I find myself longing a little for his approach here.  The book begins with an incredibly dramatic, startling event — the murder of a family and escape of the family’s toddler into the nearby graveyard, where he’s given the name Nobody and adopted by the ghosts of the dead and an undead “guardian.”  The event is presented elliptically, even rather lyrically (the shiny black shoes of the murderer, “the moon reflected in them, tiny and half full”), but is nonetheless gripping: it is right on the fault line between fairy tale and modern horror novel, this beginning.  Amazing, and quite ballsy, in a book for children or at least “young adults” that ended up winning the Newbery Medal.

The tone shifts once we’re in the graveyard, and the book essentially becomes a series of linked short stories about various events in the boy’s childhood, as he comes to know and is raised by the dead.  The murderer, “the man Jack,” drops out of the narrative, to reappear in the book’s second half.  Once you’re into the book, this shocking opening comes to seem a folkloric, almost whimsical origin story, a way to get the boy into the graveyard where he belongs.   But Jack comes up just often enough (including one big near miss) to maintain the reader’s sense that his part in the story is not done, while maintaining his aura of mysterious dread and power.  Again, ballsy, and quite an ambitious narrative structure: Gaiman is gambling that his stories, almost completely disconnected from the framing narrative of the toddler’s miraculous escape from gruesome death, will be entertaining enough to overcome the reader’s annoyance that he’s not getting back to what the deal is with this “man Jack.”

If this was a Stephen King novel, there would be no loosely connected vignettes.  The man Jack’s true nature, motivations, and activities would be given their own sections of narrative to keep the sense of a chase happening behind the scenes, interspersed with the chapters in which Nobody grows up and gets to know the graveyard’s inhabitants, whose back stories would be more fully developed (especially Silas, Nobody’s possibly vampiric guardian).  The book would also be 500 pages longer, and much less beautiful.

The key to understanding why this gap exists is another writer, a predecessor of both: Ray Bradbury.  Gaiman wrote a short story called “October in the Chair” (it’s in Fragile Things) that, in his words, served as a “dry run” for this book: he dedicated it to Bradbury.  The Graveyard Book‘s structure reminds me quite a lot of Dandelion Wine, Bradbury’s unbelievably gorgeous prose poem about growing up in the Midwest, a book I love beyond expression.  Its conceit, tone, and characters, on the other hand, seem a direct homage to Bradbury’s stories about the Elliott family of supernatural beings, another of my favorite Bradbury creations.  I’m thinking especially of “Homecoming,” maybe the best of those stories: young Timothy, the “abnormal” normal, human kid who doesn’t like the taste of blood and can’t fly or do much of anything to show off at the family reunion.  Here’s a paragraph of Timothy’s mother talking to him right at the end, before the final, gorgeous concluding sentences:

She came to touch her hand on his face.  “Son,” she said, “we love you.  Remember that.  We all love you.  No matter how different you are, no matter if you leave us one day.”  She kissed his cheek.  “And if and when you die, your bones will lie undisturbed, we’ll see to that.  You’ll lie at ease forever, and I’ll come visit every Allhallows Eve and tuck you in the more secure.”

There, as here, it takes a graveyard to raise a child.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with family at The Ambiguities.