Top Fives for 2008

December 30, 2008 § 1 Comment

Every year Jaime and I send out a Christmas letter listing our top five movies, songs/albums, and books of the year. My books list is the only one that’s not really accurate: I leave out things that people seem to already know they should read. But hey, why not show both lists — the top five of lesser-known books, and the top five including classics?

First, the Christmas-letter list of lesser-known books:

5.  Lunar Follies, by Gilbert Sorrentino.  A really funny book, perfect for bedtime reading or picking up over breakfast or lunch.  Mostly very short pieces, each named after a topographic feature of the moon: descriptions of art installations, linguistic flights of fancy, satires on pretension.  My favorite might be “Appennines,” with its “magenta neon” sign reading “ANOTHER NAIL IN THE COFFIN OF BOURGEOIS GENDER ROLES.”

4.  The Wet Collection, by Joni Tevis.  I wrote about this a while back; it’s really good, falling somewhere among nature writing, experimental fiction, and memoir.

3.  End Zone, by Don DeLillo.  Do people already know they should read this?  I don’t know, I love DeLillo and I overlooked it for a long time.  Turns out it’s a really good book, and important for understanding DeLillo, nuclear paranoia, and football in Texas.

2.  City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer.  Because of travel, I didn’t have the opportunity to write about this much.  But, listen, it f’ing rocks.  It’s easy to underrate genres like fantasy lit because so many books are utterly derivative, and even if they’re not derivative they’re escapist or of interest only to a subculture you’re probably more comfortable not getting too deep into.  And it’s easy to overrate genre “classics” just because they are “influential”: sure, Tolkien’s inspired a lot of books, but how many good books?  But then you get someone like VanderMeer, creating a really compelling universe (the city of Ambergris and its environs) and using it to tell serious, interesting, complex stories, and you want to dive in, and never read anything else but books like this ever again.

1.  The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.  I am not messing around here.  Read it already.  And I want comments, dammit.

Okay, and now the list of the books I most enjoyed, classics included:

5.  The Decameron, by Boccaccio.  Only one of the most important books in Western literature.  Combines my loves of heavily structured fiction, stories within stories and framing devices, and lusty Italians.

4.  The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow.  The quintessential Chicago book; one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read on the basic level of language, with its wild idioms, jargons, fragments, soliloquies; a colossus of a text, which took me the better part of last December and January to read.  I’m convinced: I must read all of Bellow.  Could’ve included Ellison’s Invisible Man here, too: another American classic.

3.  A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster.  This was the year I caught up with the rest of the universe and discovered that, yes, Forster was a genius: I was just too lazy in college.  The scenes in the Marabar caves are utterly unforgettable.

2.  The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.  Just an unbelievable book.  I can’t imagine reading this when it was first published; my head might’ve exploded.  “Moon Lake” is probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read, and it might not even be my favorite story here, because “The Wanderers” is just that good.  Difficult, obscure, and complicated in the best, most marvelous ways possible.

1.  Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.  Not as a quality judgment, necessarily (although I think it belongs in this company), but because it’s the book I’ll always think of when I remember this year.  In a year of awful surprises (and a few good ones), DFW’s death was the worst for me.  It’s funny: I first read this in the summer of 1999, right before we elected GWB; and I read it again right before Obama’s election.  Damn, but it’s been a long eight years, ain’t it?  DFW was always ahead of the curve, and so much of the book makes so much more sense to me now.  We’ll be a while in catching up to him.

Here’s wishing you all happy reading in 2009.

Mrs. Moore and the Temple of Boum

March 18, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: A Passage to India.

Reading next: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.

Adela Questing is not the only character whose life changes in the picnic at the Marabar Caves. Mrs. Moore’s is also profoundly affected: both share a similar experience with an echo, at different times, in different ways.

Forster, while careful to point out that the caves are not to be seen as merely uncanny, is thoroughly uncanny in his initial description of the echo, as experienced by Mrs. Moore:

The echo in a Marabar cave… is entirely devoid of distinction. Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies… “Boum” is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or “bou-oum,” or “ou-boum” — utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce “boum.” Even the striking of a match starts a little worm coiling… And if several people talk at once, an overlapping howling noise begins, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which write independently.

Mrs. Moore hates her short time in the dark cave, into which the entire company had packed. She’d felt something repulsive cover her mouth; looking for the villain after they have left the cave, she discovers it was the hand of a baby on its mother’s hip, just grabbing what looks grabbable, as babies will. Not a touch of evil about it at all.

But the echo, that horrible snake composed of small snakes… that stays with her. (Almost Shakespearean, that image. Like something Lear would have said.) And in another of the last paragraphs of chapters about religion, she thinks:

But suddenly, at the edge of her mind, Religion appeared, poor little talkative Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words from “Let there be Light” to “It is finished” only amounted to “boum.” … she realized that she didn’t want to write to her children, didn’t want to communicate with anyone, not even with God. She sat motionless with horror…

And Mrs. Moore, apparently, never gets over this. She makes herself so disagreeable — going so far as to be rude to the damaged Adele and to assert Aziz’s innocence — that her son ships her out, in the midst of the insufferably hot tropical summer. She dies on the passage across the Indian Ocean, having become a horrible sibyl of a kind, uttering her pronouncements of doom and terror when she has to speak at all. It seems, in a way, the opposite of Godbole’s Hindu song: where he continually sings for the god to come, she feels she has heard the horrible response, the response which is no response at all, and ceases to see why communication should be bothered with.

Adela also experiences the “boum” echo, but it takes a much different form with her. Her echo torments her, ringing in her ears for days after the incident. It is trying to tell her something; it is akin to Poe’s tell-tale heart, pounding away in her brain, an awful manifestation of conscience. When she admits that she may have made a mistake by accusing Aziz, it subsides; and when she finally recants, in court, it leaves her. But why the echo? The echo seems to her the key to remembering at least some of what actually happened, and also the disorienting factor keeping her from remembering.

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.

The Marabar Caves

March 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: A Passage to India.

There will be much more to say about what’s going on with (and in) the Marabar Caves, but for now I just want to pause and savor Forster’s Chapter XII, the opening of Part II, describing the caves. It’s a somewhat cosmic, mystical chapter; Forster writes beautifully about India’s prehistory, interpreting how the strange rock formations in which the caves reside came to be.

He goes out of his way to point out that the caves are not merely spooky: “To call them ‘uncanny’ suggests ghosts, and they are older than all spirit.” (Sacrilegious to some, I suppose, this idea that spirits came to be only when mankind came to be. But then Forster definitely has his own ideas about religion in this book.) But they are also strangely unassuming, to humans. An interesting passage here: “their reputation — for they have one — does not depend upon human speech. It is as if the surrounding plain or the passing birds have taken upon themselves to exclaim ‘extraordinary,’ and the word has taken root in the air, and been inhaled by mankind.”

Now I have to quote the next paragraph in full, just for the beauty of it and because it seems to hold some sort of key:

They are dark caves. Even when they open towards the sun, very little light penetrates down the entrance tunnel into the circular chamber. There is little to see, and no eye to see it, until the visitor arrives for his five minutes, and strikes a match. Immediately another flame rises in the depths of the rock and moves towards the surface like an imprisoned spirit: the walls of the circular chamber have been most marvellously polished. The two flames approach and strive to unite, but cannot, because one of them breathes air, the other stone. A mirror inlaid with lovely colours divides the lovers, delicate stars of pink and grey interpose, exquisite nebulae, shadings fainter than the tail of a comet or the midday moon, all the evanescent life of the granite, only here visible. Fists and fingers thrust above the advancing soil — here at last is their skin, finer than any covering acquired by the animals, smoother than windless water, more voluptuous than love. The radiance increases, the flames touch one another, kiss, expire. The cave is dark again, like all the caves.

The “fists and fingers” here are a reference back to the opening chapter of the book, in which Forster mentions the Marabar Hills, using the metaphor of “a group of fists and fingers thrust up through the soil.” The “skin,” the inside of the hills, polished somehow (by who? by nature?), “more voluptuous than love.” These caves are the heart of the book, and Forster sets what appears to be the book’s pivotal event (or non-event) there. I’ll need to tackle what happens at the caves tomorrow.

Ineffable Gods

March 12, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: A Passage to India.

I’m rapidly in the process of falling in love with this book (quite a change from yesterday, eh?), as it seems determined to thwart my expectations and be just completely fascinating, unpredictable, and beautiful.  (The lesson, as always: trust Ray Bradbury.  He says it’s good, it’s good.)

Forster has that sense of chapters as scenes, as potent mini-books which readers will stop and reflect upon before moving to another.  As such, the beginnings and endings of his chapters tend to be crucial, the places where he makes his points, sets his scenes (something he’s very good at, of course), brings his ideas to the fore from behind the action of the narrative.  (This is a common trait, another that I, for one, especially associate with early modernist British writers.  Again, maybe it’s just me.  I’d like to read something someday about the development of the chapter.  Surely Gerard Genette says something about it.  But I digress.)

Forster has been excellent, so far, at ending every chapter with an epigram, symbol, incident, or idea that’s really provocative.  See Chapter II: Mrs. Moore says, “I don’t think I understand people very well.  I only know whether I like or dislike them.”  To which Dr. Aziz, a Muslim, replies, “Then you are an Oriental.”

But I want to share the two that seem to be developing the most interesting theme, so far.  At the end of Chapter V, Mrs. Moore is talking to her son Ronny about the interactions between the English and the Indians, and Mrs. Moore is arguing that the English “are out here to be pleasant,” not simply to administer justice and bring civilization to India, “Because India is part of the earth.  And God has put us on the earth in order to be pleasant to each other.  God… is… love.”  This talk of God disturbs Ronny, and he ends the conversation as soon as possible.  In the chapter’s last paragraph, Forster writes:

“Mrs. Moore felt that she had made a mistake in mentioning God, but she found him increasingly difficult to avoid as she grew older, and he had been constantly in her thoughts since she entered India, though oddly enough he satisfied her less.  She must needs pronounce his name frequently, as the greatest she knew, yet she had never found it less efficacious.  Outside the arch there seemed always an arch, beyond the remotest echo a silence….”

At the end of Chapter VII we hear a similar thought from a different direction, told by Forster in a different way.   Mr. Fielding, the master of the small college, has invited to tea Dr. Aziz, Mrs. Moore and Ms. Questing, and a Brahman Professor at the college named Godbole.  At the end of their tea (which began very well and ended quite badly, with the arrival of Ronny to usher away the ladies) Godbole, with very little provocation (and quite out of character, seemingly, as he has been Brahminishly aloof throughout), sings a song for them.  It is unintelligible and rather baffling to the English ear, but the Hindu servants are entranced and delighted.  Fielding thanks him for the song and asks for an explanation, to which Godbole replies:

“I will explain in detail.  It was a religious song.  I placed myself in the position of a milkmaiden.  I say to Shri Krishna, ‘Come! come to me only.’  The god refuses to come.  I grow humble and say: ‘Do not come to me only.  Multiply yourself into a hundred Krishnas, and let one go to each of my hundred companions, but one, O Lord of the Universe, come to me.’  He refuses to come.  This is repeated several times.  The song is composed in a raga appropriate to the present hour, which is the evening.”

“But he comes in some other song, I hope?” said Mrs. Moore gently.

“Oh no, he refuses to come,” repeated Godbole, perhaps not understanding her question.  “I say to Him, Come, come, come, come, come, come.  He neglects to come.”

Ronny’s steps had died away, and there was a moment of absolute silence.  No ripple disturbed the water, no leaf stirred.

This theme, of the god who cannot be denied but is also removed, distant, inscrutable (as Gaiman and Pratchett had it, humorously, in Good Omens, “ineffable”), is handled so well here.  That last paragraph really knocks me out.  (As an aside, it also reminds me of the George Harrison song “My Sweet Lord,” the greatest pop song ever about god.)  Another interesting thing about this, I think, is that Forster relieves himself of the unwelcome necessity of commenting on Mrs. Moore’s reaction to this, after her similar rumination the night before.  We’re left to contemplate her reaction ourselves: that’s a nice ambiguous space to think in, and also leaves us wanting to read ahead to how she develops in the coming chapters.

There have started to be discussions about the Malabar Caves outside of town, and Part II of the book is entitled “Caves” (Part I is “Mosque”).  I have high hopes that we’re going to move into some really interesting metaphysical territory in Part II.

Ah, Englishness

March 11, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster.

I am reading this for two reasons:

a) I never gave A Room with a View a fair shake in college and I’ve always felt I owed Forster another chance.

b) Ray Bradbury called this the perfect novel or some such.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Forster is English with a vengeance.  I’ve grown more patient with that fussy British parsing of every single dull social interaction’s subtext, although it’s still definitely here and still has the power to get on my nerves occasionally.  But the book seems to be building to something more interesting here; I’m enjoying the interactions between the naive, young Miss Quested (that’s right, quested) and the older but adventuresome Mrs. Moore and the Indians they desire to learn about.  (I’m also enjoying ignoring, for the moment, all those grating sirens in my head blaring Colonial oppressor’s literature!  Colonial oppressor’s literature!, at least until I figure out what Forster’s trying to say.)

Right now, Forster seems to be setting up a romance between Miss Quested and a Mr. Fielding, the principal of the “little Government College,” who are both determined to be decent to the natives (unlike Ronny Heaslop, Quested’s semi-betrothed and Mrs. Moore’s son, of whom his mother says, “Englishmen like posing as gods.”)  I hope to gods that’s not what we’re leading to here, at least not as the focus of the book.  Please let it be a subplot.  Please let it be a subplot…

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