November 22, 2011 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Molloy, by Samuel Beckett.
Reading next: Bleak House, by Charles Dickens.
Molloy felt like the perfect book for one of the most disturbing, confusing months in recent American history. After a while, it began to sink in that part of Beckett’s point was that it’s always one of the most disturbing, confusing months in recent human history. We’re messed up.
Later I will write about the book’s insanity, which reminds me so much of Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. For now I want to focus on its sanity, its stunning moments of clarity.
Molloy is a drifter. A vagrant. A bum, okay? And he’s maybe dead, or maybe it’s just that everyone treats him like he’s dead. He has some trouble with the police.
Molloy: And now enough of this boulevard, it must have been a boulevard, of all these righteous ones, these guardians of the peace, all these feet and hands, stamping, clutching, clenched in vain, these bawling mouths that never bawl out of season, this sky beginning to drip, enough of being abroad, trapped, visible. Someone was poking the dog, with a malacca…. His death must have hurt him less than my fall me. And he at least was dead.
Moran, on the other hand, is an “agent” of a shadowy organization, a detective or some such figure. He is an authoritarian, a megalomaniac. He is also possibly Molloy, or contains Molloy within himself. The word violence recurs, over and over, in his report.
Moran: When I can give pleasure, without doing violence to my principles, I do so gladly.
Plot and narration — the fiction and the metafiction — are constantly mingled in Molloy, in both Molloy’s monologue and the report of Jacques Moran. It’s a story that calls attention to the fact that it is being created; a story of creation and creation’s immediate, inevitable decay. “Saying is inventing,” Molloy says.
Molloy: And truly it little matters what I say, this, this or that or any other thing. Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson…
Moran: It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.
Some lessons are recited much more often, and much more loudly, than others. We get lessons on the trustworthiness of authority figures like police officers, teachers, and football coaches from a very early age. We hear less about economic inequality, or excessive use of force by American public servants on the citizenry to which they are ostensibly accountable.
Molloy: Can it be we are not free? It might be worth looking into.
Moran: The servant wishes to rest? Let her retire to her room. In the kitchen all must be of wood, white and rigid. I should mention that Martha had insisted, before entering my service, that I permit her to keep her rocking-chair in the kitchen. I had refused, indignantly. Then, seeing she was inflexible, I had yielded. I was too kind-hearted.
It is almost as though we have forgotten that people who are inconvenient remain people. It is almost as though we have allowed (or even encouraged) institutions to see themselves as the real people, now, the ones to be protected against illnesses and abuses such as dissent, protest, scandal, free access to information, outsiders.
Molloy: Morning is the time to hide. They wake up, hale and hearty, their tongues hanging out for order, beauty, and justice, baying for their due. Yes, from eight or nine till noon is the dangerous time. But towards noon things quiet down, the most implacable are sated, they go home, it might have been better but they’ve done a good job, there have been a few survivors but they’ll give no more trouble, each man counts his rats.
Moran: If there is one question I dread, to which I have never been able to invent a satisfactory reply, it is the question what am I doing. And on someone else’s land to make things worse! And at night! And in weather not fit for a dog!
But there’s astonishing beauty, too, and astonishing humor, and a grasp of what we are capable of.
Molloy: And that night there was no question of moon, nor any other light, but it was a night of listening, a night given to the faint soughing and sighing stirring at night in little pleasure gardens, the shy sabbath of leaves and petals in the air that eddies there as it does not in other places, where there is less constraint, and as it does not during the day, when there is more vigilance, and then something else that is not clear, being neither the air nor what it moves, perhaps the far unchanging noise the earth makes and which other noises cover, but not for long. For they do not account for that noise you hear when you really listen, when all seems hushed. And there was another noise, that of my life become the life of this garden as it rode the earth of deeps and wildernesses. Yes, there were times when I forgot not only who I was, but that I was, forgot to be. Then I was no longer that sealed jar to which I owed my being so well preserved, but a wall gave way and I filled with roots and tame stems…
I wish for all of us such a moment. This is a contribution to the People’s Library.
To him who has nothing it is forbidden not to relish filth.
July 24, 2011 § 2 Comments
Now reading: The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace.
The Pale King is classified on its title page as “An Unfinished Novel,” by David Foster Wallace. The “Editor’s Note” that follows this title page (and the important copyright page on its verso) makes it clear that this is… well… not untrue, exactly, but also not the straight dope. The book is by David Foster Wallace and Michael Pietsch, his editor. TPK, as DFW left it, was an unfinished novel, but this is not that TPK. This TPK is an assemblage put together from DFW’s papers by Pietsch, in an order approximating what Pietsch thought DFW might have wanted, or at least what Pietsch and/or others at Little, Brown/Hachette thought most interesting and/or viable in bookstores. It’s a collage. It’s not how DFW left it; it’s something different. The closest correlative I can think of is the posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems, altered in a multitude of ways. As I read it, I find that I have to keep telling myself: This isn’t even close to a finished piece of work. This isn’t a novel. This is a bunch of stuff put in a “best-guess” order by a knowledgeable editor who, while I will forever appreciate his putting in the time and effort to put this book together, is not David Foster Wallace, and had arguments with DFW about what belonged in his books, and put together a book as he, the editor, saw fit, without any input or pushback from the author, who wasn’t done with the thing to begin with.
Because of course DFW did all sorts of things with structure and fragmentary narratives and disjointed timelines and complicated plots in his finished fiction. So it can seem like a real, live DFW novel. But it’s not. And that’s horribly sad. (And seriously: I don’t think it was close to being done. I think this was another Infinite Jest-scale work.) But it is a helluva thing in its own right, and I’m glad to have it.
All of this ontological and classificatory speculation is germane to the book itself, as it turns out. Section 9 is the “Author’s Foreword,” and it’s clear from the footnotes and other internal evidence that DFW did want this Foreword to be somewhere a ways into the book (I mean, I really don’t mean to say that Pietsch is a bad guy for putting the book together; it was clearly a heroic effort and labor of love, and he did his best with the assignment he chose, which was to make a pile of papers into a salable product.) In it, DFW claims that the book is a memoir, not fiction at all, but is called a novel for legal purposes. It’s weird and tricksy, exactly the “kind of clever metafictional titty-pincher” DFW claims in this very chapter that the book is not.
Because, look: for reasons that are as yet unclear to me (and I suspect may never be clear to me), DFW wrote himself into the book. He claims to have served as an IRS employee in the mid-80s after leaving college, having written papers for cash. Two of the biggest chunks of narrative in the book (though not the biggest) are concerned with this DFW character. He goes to some lengths to convince readers of this “foreword” that the book is factual, including the following:
Our mutual contract here is based on the presumptions of (a) my veracity, and (b) your understanding that any features or semions that might appear to undercut that veracity are in fact protective legal devices, not unlike the boilerplate that accompanies sweepstakes and civil contracts, and thus are not meant to be decoded or ‘read’ so much as merely acquiesced to as part of the cost of our doing business together, so to speak, in today’s commercial climate.
DFW explicitly dismisses the idea that he’s playing on different definitions or kinds of “truth” here (i.e., that the book is all true in an emotional or aesthetic sense, the typical claim for fiction’s “truthfulness”). He also, interestingly, refers to himself as “primarily a fiction writer,” which is not the way most of the general reading public knew him: more people read his very popular nonfiction, at least before his death. And maybe he hoped to bring together those two published personae — DFW the avant-garde fiction writer, and DFW the genius profiler and cruise-ship-interrogator — in this book. But maybe what DFW was mostly up to with this “Foreword” was an attempt to sort of cut the Gordian knot which the reading of literary fiction of his sort has become. The stakes, frankly, have become so small, and he wanted to raise them. As he points out in this section, people care about “made-up stuff” in memoirs in a way that they do not in fiction, much less metafiction or belles lettres. I think the Foreword might be a way of asking us to read and act like it’s all true, even if it’s not. To pay attention to it, especially when it’s “user-unfriendly” or boring, as though it were as true as the “real world,” which was part of the point of metafiction in the first place (I think, though in the past I’ve thought of it more as pointing out that the “real world” is as structured and narrative-based and “false” as the fictional ones). Because even if the work is demonstrably clever and metafictional, he absolutely did not want it to be a “titty-pincher”: a kind of low-stakes, slightly hurtful, slightly titillating prank.
All of this is somewhat undercut by the book’s unfinished nature: the discussions of legal reviews of final drafts and wrangling with editors and such is all obviously impossible, even if you take out the biographical information. It gives the section a kind of melancholy hilarity, this knowledge that DFW wrote all this without any of said legal reviews or editorial agonizings having taken place. Presumably some less grandiose approximation eventually did, made much easier by his decease and the chapter’s obvious falsehood accruing therefrom.
July 12, 2010 § 1 Comment
Just finished: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.
Reading next: Mulligan Stew, by Gilbert Sorrentino.
I finished it a couple of days ago, but my mind’s still not entirely made up about Cloud Atlas. Part of me thinks it’s an absolute masterpiece, one of the best pieces of literature in recent years. Another, smaller part keeps trying to tamp down that enthusiasm, pointing to the sometimes pedestrian prose, the wooden or slightly stilted language occasionally on display (especially in “Half-Lives” and “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” which also happen to be the sections in which it’s easiest to call these faults intentional), the strange irritation I sometimes feel in the company of Mitchell, and the niggling sense that nothing truly groundbreaking is going on here.
All of that seems relatively minor, though, compared to the brilliance on display in much of the book, especially (in my opinion) “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” “An Orison of Sonmi-451,” and “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everythin’ After.” These latter two are some of the best science fiction I’ve read in a long time, and also manage to transform the rest of the book into science fiction of a sort, as well. I wished, while reading it, that “Sloosha’s Crossin'” was its own book, not the novella nestled at the center of another. But that’s part of the brilliance: it’s at the center because of its interactions with the other five parts of this “sextet,” this musical work in literary form. The central story is very close to being its own story, but it is not: not quite. Nothing is ever only its own story. No one is ever only their own self. That’s the point.
It was while reading “Sloosha’s Crossin'” in the middle of the book that I started to wonder about how one would go about teaching this book, and about that hoary old classroom discussion on types of conflict. You know: man vs. man! man vs. nature! man vs. self! man vs. society! That whole bit. (Here come some SPOILERS, of maybe META-SPOILERS, so look out.) The book’s structure is clever, and elegant: a fragment of five stories, each fragment being read (or at least experienced) by a character in the next, with the complete text of a sixth (“Sloosha’s Crossin'”) in the middle, followed by the completion of each fragment in reverse order, the completions being found in each preceding story.
Remember those graphs of a novel’s structure that you had to draw in middle- or high school, showing the rising and falling action, the varying degrees of intensity of narrative tension and incident? Here there could be six lines on the graph, each rising, then flatlining (with an occasional bump) as another story takes over, then picking back up after a trough of varying length. (I loved drawing those graphs. If I had a scanner I’d draw one and slap it in here right now.) But here’s the thing: because these six stories, however compelling on their own, appear in the context of their own reading — some presented as fictional within the fiction itself (or are they?) — these graphical depictions would be rather dishonest, or at least incomplete. The real plot, the real conflict, lies in their conjunctions. Not to get all John Barth on you here, but the main “conflicts” are Story vs. Story and Reader vs. Text, at both the level of the plot itself and at the metafictional level.
One of the book’s brilliances, though, is the integration (maybe even subordination) of these postmodern conflicts into the content of the book, and the fact that it’s possible to experience the book not as a battlefield of conflicts at all, but more like the piece of symphonic music it explicitly patterns itself after. You can read the stories as working together like instruments in an ensemble, to tell a larger story of a tension and landscape (rather than conflict) something like “Humanity Struggles” or “Souls Reemerge,” rather than as conflicting across levels of text and comprehension. (The symphonic aspect of the work is really beautifully done, not only in the structure, but also at the level of metaphor and motif.) A passage that clarified this for me appears on p. 169, in the comedic “Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” in which the titular vanity-press publisher vents on his life in books:
Despondency makes one hanker after lives one never led. Why have you given your life to books, TC? Dull, dull, dull! The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction! Hero goes on a journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don’t, will is pitted against will. “Admire me, for I am a metaphor.”
The passage is, I think, the funniest in the book (that last-sentence punchline kills me, especially if you imagine a British comedian like Ricky Gervais or John Cleese delivering it). Anyone who deals with pedestrian fiction in bulk (as vanity-press publishers surely do, and as librarians do, as well) has thought something similar. Mitchell includes it (and the entire “Ghastly Ordeal” tale) not only as comic relief, but for its reflection on the whole business of making narrative, making story, and the desire to transcend those archetypal plot types in some way.
What Mitchell does better than many of the arch-postmodernists have done is use this desire to actually convey a story about not only its own telling, but important matters in the worlds of the plot and the “real world” the plot mimics. He manages to conclude his book with a two-page message, for God’s sake — a moral, even! — without seeming dishonest, pedantic, maudlin, or hokey. That’s a real accomplishment: a step forward, thanks be, to the past.
May 30, 2010 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Moby-Dick.
Everyone who’s read or even read about Moby-Dick knows that Ishmael is a weird entity, a hybrid of character, limited and omniscient narrator, and authorial representative. He shows and tells us things he, as a character, could not possibly have seen or heard. But he came across as even weirder than I remember on this reading, if only because I was able to pick up more of the details than on previous readings, my attention focused on the bigger picture of understanding the novel.
The possibility of reading Ishmael as a Nabokovian trickster-narrator occurred to me on this reading — the possibility of Ishmael as a deliberately duplicitous narrator, a figure who indicates the fictional nature of his own composition and implicates the real-life author, as well. It’s a half-facetious argument: some of the explanation for Ishmael’s weirdness lies, I’m convinced, in Melville’s being carried away by his passionate composition and his insistence that his text say what he wanted to express, whether or not it meant betraying the verisimilitude of the narrative and the character. And so his character is given some of Melville’s own backstory and some elaborate incidents of his own, is thrown into situations to move the story along whenever convenient, etc. But some of this does seem, if not deliberate, at least playfully possible as a legitimate reading, thanks to Melville’s gift for compelling detail, instructive incident, and frequent allusion.
Along with the first line of the book, the famously ambiguous “Call me Ishmael” (“call” you that because it’s not your real name, and you want to protect your identity, or “call” you that because you’re really the author and are assuming a persona?), the linchpin for an argument like this is probably the mention of a Captain D’Wolf in chapter 45, “The Affadavit.” Ishmael has “the honor of being a nephew of his,” we’re told, and has confirmed with D’Wolf the truth of the whaling incident just described. Interesting, this sidelight into Ishmael’s family (one of two, the other being the incident in which Ishmael’s stepmother sends him to bed in the middle of the afternoon described in an earlier post), especially considering his self-image as an “orphan” and “outcast.” But more interesting is the fact that this Captain D’Wolf really was Melville’s uncle: “Nor’west” John D’Wolf. (See here: as you can see, this message is part of a website about the film Traces of the Trade, about the slave trade, in which the D’Wolf family was heavily involved. Also interesting, if not quite on topic.)
And so, if you knew Melville personally, or knew the D’Wolfs — and they were a famous family, and America was a much smaller place, so this was not unlikely — this punches a hole right through the mask of the character Ishmael to reveal the face of the author Melville. This historical, verifiable D’Wolf is not the uncle of any Ishmael: he’s Melville’s. And we’re suddenly on the unstable ground of nonfiction v. “realist” fiction v. self-consciously unreliable fiction. And it’s utterly delightful that this mention occurs in “The Affadavit” — this half-serious, half-joking document attesting to the truth of Ishmael’s assertions, in which he relates whaling incidents he’s read about and those he’s “personally known.”
The trickster nature of Ishmael pops up often, of course, in his relation of incidents in Ahab’s cabin, of thoughts and private soliloquies he could not have heard — his apparent transformation into a spirit or god, until his reincarnation as the survivor Ishmael in the Epilogue. But charting the course of his life after the novel’s close through mentions in the book also destabilizes his characterization. Mentions of Ishmael’s working as a “schoolmaster” (in the very first chapter) and of his obsessive research into whales and whaling (throughout the heart of the book) lead one to look back on the prefaces to the “Etymology” and “Extracts” and wonder if that “late consumptive usher” and “sub-sub-librarian” are not, in fact, Ishmael himself: if his painting them in such pathetic colors is not a sign of self-loathing or remorse for his wasted life. But then there are also frequent allusions to the many other voyages he’s made on whalers and other ships, the ports he’s stopped at, the adventures he’s had, the wisdom he’s found. “The Town-Ho’s Story” is but the most famous example: Ishmael recounting the story he heard during the Town-Ho‘s gam with the Pequod to his Spanish friends in Lima some years later. There’s also the utterly remarkable incident chapter 102, “A Bower in the Arsacides,” as Ishmael is able to measure a whale’s skeleton which has been converted into an idol. Here’s the astonishing passage I’d forgotten:
The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics. But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing — at least, what untattooed parts might remain — I did not trouble myself with the odd inches…
I mean… wow. Ishmael, so astounded by Queequeg’s cosmological tribal tattoos at the book’s onset, has become an illustrated man himself. That he did not mention it earlier surely means that this occurred after the Pequod‘s voyage.
So, to summarize. We are to believe that Ishmael the composer of Moby-Dick, the lone lucky survivor of the Pequod disaster, is not traumatized by this experience into sticking to the land at all, but instead goes back to the sea constantly, taking many more trips not only on merchant vessels, but on whalers. He becomes just as obsessed with whales and the white whale especially as much as Ahab ever was; he is a very old, very weathered and wizened sailor, covered in tattoos as surely startling as Queequeg’s once were to him. The book is written on his body, perhaps, just as Queequeg’s understanding of the universe is written on his. The book is as much an exorcism of his whaling demons as it is a chapter of his life recollected in tranquility.
All of which is not necessarily Nabokovian, except for the ending. Provocative statement for discussion and debate: Moby-Dick has the craziest, most ludicrous ending of any great book. As the ship sinks rapidly in its awful vortex, Tashtego, drowning, all but his arms underwater, still manages to continue hammering a red flag to the mast, and catches the wing of a “sky-hawk” in between his hammer and the mast, bringing it down with the ship. In The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, Howard Vincent somewhat hilariously tries to defend this as “perhaps [Melville’s] masterpiece of style.” Um, yeah. Style does not change the fact that this scene is bat-shit insane, and always has been, even by Romantic standards.
Does the vortex scene ultimately destabilize Ishmael as a reliable narrator? Does it convince us that he, the character who supposedly shipped on the Pequod and supposedly survived its wreck, is making it up, Pale Fire-style? Has Ishmael the author (or, beyond him, a fictional “Melville”) been driven insane by his whale obsession and his cowardice, driven to compose an overheated narrative about a monster whale, a demonic captain, and his incredible survival of a massive shipwreck — of which he is, conveniently, the only survivor, the tale therefore unverifiable — supported by an overabundance of “evidence” from his many supposed voyages, his years of “wandering,” and his extensive research (but really from just a few printed sources)?
Well, no. The greatness of Melville’s book does not lie in its destabilization of the author as authority or the intricate interplay between narrator and reader. But it’s a testament to the expanse, the capacity, of this book, that it can absorb this sort of reading, too. And it is fun to imagine the book in this alternate-universe sort of way, as a giant hoax, a massive documentation of an unstable mind.
April 5, 2010 § 1 Comment
Now reading: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, with The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, by Howard P. Vincent.
This is my third reading of the great novel, the first time in a ’40s Modern Library edition reproducing those gorgeous Rockwell Kent illustrations. (N.B. If anyone ever wants to buy me a $20K present, the three-volume folio Lakeside Press edition in which the illustrations first appeared would be great. My favorite book (as an object of art) of the 20th century.) I should be forthright and say that M-D is probably my favorite novel. You will not find objective critique or lamentations over length and difficulty here. I unabashedly love this book.
I read it first in college (in the Norton edition, which really is the best way to first read it), and was immediately charmed by the “Etymology” and “Extracts” which appear before the main narrative. I have ever since had a warm spot in my heart for these very weird textual appendages, which I’ve gone back and forth about considering as paratexts or as part of the narrative proper or as something in between. I’d forgotten, however, that what originally charmed me about them was precisely their in-between nature: the miniature fictional narratives that are used to frame these long lists of epigrams.
These sections are most often dismissed as throat-clearing or simple Melvillean maximalism — they were shunted to an appendix at the back of the book in the first British edition, setting an unfortunate precedent which led to their being cut entirely from a number of editions — but there’s clearly more going on than that. Each section can be read as a short short story about the “creator” of each section: the “late consumptive usher to a grammar school” and the “sub-sub-librarian,” respectively. In my metafiction-besotted undergraduate days, I enjoyed speculating on whether the “I” in these character sketches was Melville, or Ishmael, or an unnamed editor, or none of the above. I equally enjoyed how these sections highlighted the cetomania of both these characters and the ambiguous “I” discussing them, drawing us both on to and past the surface of the text to come. That’s all still quite enjoyable and interesting, to me at least. But on this reading, I’ve come to believe that the E&E sections are meant to function mostly as an overture, a passage introducing the motifs and methods to be used and fleshed out in the following symphony (or opera, if you prefer — which is the book more like?)
Howard Vincent’s book helped me see this: his emphasis on Melville’s theme of man’s isolation and search for self led me to reflect more on the characters themselves — the usher, the sub-sub — and why Melville bothered with them at all. He uses the usher and sub-sub as archetypes of sadness, loneliness, and radically proscribed living. The usher, consumptive and “pale,” dusts his books with a handkerchief “mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world.” Brilliant, that “mockingly,” those repeated “all”s: the sick schoolteacher will never go anywhere, never see any of those nations represented on his handkerchief. The narrator is rather more harsh to the librarian, dismissing him as a “grubworm,” a “poor devil,” “hopeless, sallow.” Worse, to a librarian, is the cutting advice: “Give it up, Sub-Subs! For by how much the more pains ye take to please the world, by so much the more shall ye for ever go thankless!” These are lost souls, probably as given to “hypos” as Ishmael himself, subsuming their selves in quests for knowledge — dismissed by the narrator as fruitless attempts to “please the world.”
But the etymologies and the extracts are there, chosen by Melville or Ishmael or someone in between depending on how we choose to read the metafiction; and these too contribute to the overture. In their variety and excess and scope — etymologies from Hebrew to “Erromangoan,” extracts from the Bible to sea shanties — they highlight the various perspectives on the whale that Melville will employ to advance his theme, and give a sense of his ambition (and/or mania). I posit that they are as carefully chosen, rigorously arranged, and pregnant with meaning as any musical overture and as the narrative itself, when viewed in conjunction with that narrative.
January 18, 2010 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Dictionary of the Khazars.
Before moving on, just a few words about this book’s complex structure (you could say, “overly, needlessly complex” — yeah, let’s say that) and how I went about reading it.
Pavic wanted readers to participate as full partners in creating his fiction: he wanted them to skip around in it, picking how they want to read (within certain reasonable patterns), not following a single preordained pattern of linear reading. This is an analog hypertext, in other words. The book has “Preliminary Notes,” followed by three dictionaries (more like encyclopedias, actually): Red, Green, and Yellow Books, with entries related to the Khazars from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish sources and perspectives, respectively. Then there are two appendices. So far as I can tell, these are appendices and not incorporated into the entries only because Pavic wanted them to be read after the other entries. It’s not as though the content of the entries themselves is so overly focused. The substantial entries are linked stories, for all their trappings as scholarly entries. There are also two slightly different versions of the book: a “Male Edition,” and a “Female Edition,” differing by one paragraph.
I read the book like so: first, the preliminary notes. Then I read the four entries included in each of the three books, which seemed fairly introductory to me. Then I started following links in those entries to other entries, which led to a more or less chronological reading, with a few exceptions: from entries on the historical Khazars of the 7th-10th centuries and their conversions to other religions, to entries on the three characters of the 17th century linked by their dreams and the creation of the destroyed first edition of the Dictionary of the Khazars, to entries on the 20th-century characters studying the history of the Khazars in one way or another. I read the first appendix after it was linked in the text, somewhere in the middle; I read the second appendix and closing author’s note at the end, since they were never linked anywhere in the text.
The metafictional apparatus by which the book purports to be a reconstruction and expansion of a lost 17th-century original (of which two copies, one written with some kind of magically poisoned ink, survived) never quite worked for me. Mostly it just confused me. It’s certainly a good example of the kinds of bibliographic muddles one can get into in researching old books, and trying to understand the sources of those books; and the idea that the sources of the three books of the different religions need to talk to each other to understand the entire story of the Khazars is also an important one. But the artifice is never convincing. The entries are, for the most part, incredibly detailed but also somewhat random: the list of entries is much more novelistic than scholarly or lexicographical. The gaps in knowledge seem convenient. Partly I think this is an epistemological critique, a way of reconstructing a whole race, a people that have been forgotten precisely through such Western exercises as the compilation of historical sources and archival material. If that’s the case, I don’t think it’s entirely successful. Somehow it just seems messy.
Part of my problem with the book, I suspect, is also with the often baffling language. Is this a translation problem, a problem of my lack of knowledge, or a problem of my method of reading — if I’d read the book in another order, would I have caught the meaning behind some of these perplexing metaphors and constructions? Indeed, in many cases there is a connection to another entry or a recurring character, but not in nearly all cases. Just for three instances chosen at random from many, if someone can fill me in on what might be meant by “She always thought she had three Fridays until dinnertime” or “‘Do you know how many mouth holes the Jews have?’ his mother asked that day as he ate” or “…Cohen had swallowed a soaring bird with his left eye,” I’d appreciate it. Few of these weird folkloric metaphors and surrealistic intrusions into fictive reality struck a chord with me; mostly they were just frustrating. (Though at least in the case of Dr. Suk’s entry it seems possible that all or most of the events are taking place within a dream, which lends the tone and language some credence. By and large, the dreams in the book are more lucid and straightforward than the supposed reality. Perhaps I’m looking at the book with two eyes when I should be looking with one, as Pavic would have it.)
October 18, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter.
A couple of things early on here remind me of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. We again have a story of a story being told. And there are, again, questions of motivation and intention: why is the story being told at all, and why to the person it’s being told to? There are, also, some hints of artifice, of Carter behind the curtain, relishing her fiction, and of characters with secret identities (most humorously, Lizzie, who seems to be the rare fin-de-siecle Cockney capable of explaining mid-20th-century feminist theory, if Sophie would just let her). One fascinating flourish is the repetition of the phrase “green hinge,” in reference to Midsummer Night and May 1, respectively. The first time this is spoken by Sophie herself; then it is repeated in her story by her crazed, phallus-worshiping abductor. Is this a hint that Sophie is making it all up — a slip revealing her own mannerisms in others’ mouths? Or did the phrase stick with her when her abductor used it, and work its way into her vocabulary?
However, the most interesting (coincidental) echo of TMFiS is the play with time and the idea of the “witching hour,” when witches, ghosts, and such are most active — typically, 12-1am. In TMFiS, the witching hour was evoked by the recurrence of a bell tolling midnight right before weird things started happening at the Venta Quemada. In Nights at the Circus, it’s a little more complicated. Throughout the first section, there’s also a bell repeatedly striking twelve times for midnight. But here, the bell strikes twelve over and over again, in one night. And the bell is that of Big Ben, ringing through London.
Furthermore, the clock in the dressing room of Sophie Fevvers is also stuck on midnight. Sophie’s telling her story, and she introduces this clock and explains the positions of its hands during her discussion of her childhood in the brothel of one Ma Nelson:
It was a figure of Father Time with a scythe in one hand and a skull in the other above a face on which the hands stood always at either midnight or noon, the minute hand and the hour hand folded perpetually together as if in prayer, for Ma Nelson said the clock in her reception room must show the dead centre of the day or night, the shadowless hour, the hour of vision and revelation, the still hour in the centre of the storm of time.
So throughout the night, time stands still at the witching hour — or, in Sophie’s words, “the shadowless hour.” And there’s the puzzle of Sophie: is she telling the shadowless truth of how she came to have wings and travel the world as the star of a circus, or is she bewitching her young interviewer? Is this magic, or truth, or just another aspect of a beautiful, self-inventing con? Witch itself is surely a quite complicated word for Carter, and it will be fascinating to see what kind of witch she’s created here.
October 9, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.
Reading next: Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter.
The most surprising thing about this book isn’t the erotica, or the range of genres and voices employed; that’s always somewhat startling in a 19th-century work, but it’s really par for the course in the Boccaccio-Chaucer-1001 Nights stories-within-stories tradition. What’s surprising about Potocki’s book, at least to me, is its self-consciousness, its reflexivity, its — dare I say it? — its metafictional tendencies, and its occasional seemingly contemporary sensibilities.
These moments can be hard to track, and may be an effect of translation as much as content. However, there must be something undeniably modern in a passage like this, from the end of the tenth day, as van Worden is puzzling over the strange way that a story seems to apply to his own situation: “The bell for dinner sounded. The cabbalist was not at the table. Everyone seemed preoccupied to me because I was preoccupied myself.”
Everyone seemed preoccupied to me because I was preoccupied myself. Couldn’t that be Fitzgerald, Carver, or even a Dylan lyric? That anxiety, disaffectedness, alienation? That projection of inner turmoil onto environment? They rattled me, those flat, modern sentences, coming as they did after the retelling of a 17th-century religious parable/spook story. This juxtaposition itself seemed further evidence of a rather jaded, modern sensibility; evidence that the history of literature is much weirder, more tangled, and idiosyncratic than its presentation in survey courses; evidence that seeming historically inevitable, societally molded progressions are often more like cycles of discovery, rediscovery, recycling, affiliations among fellow thinkers. (Call it the Tristram Shandy hypothesis.) The passage, and others like it, seemed a window onto the mysterious Potocki: losing himself in his maze of stories and characters, eminently preoccupied, unable to connect with others. Facing a quandary, perhaps, about the need for entertainment and the need for human contact.
It’s a very flat work, emotionally. I am uncertain how conscious of this Potocki was, or whether he cared. Compared to Boccaccio or Chaucer, certainly, Potocki evinces much less concern or compassion for his characters and much more concern for his structure, for the mapping of his narratives and the relationships among the work, the author, and the reader. There is an ongoing motif in the framing narrative of characters coyly voicing the concerns Potocki feels the reader (and perhaps he himself) has about the direction the book is taking. Much of this Potocki works rather brilliantly into the romantic subplot between Rebecca/Laura, the caballist’s daugher, and Velasquez the geometer (of whom I’ll write at more length later). At the end of the 28th day, Velasquez complains that the stories-within-stories that the gypsy chief Pandesowna is telling have become impossible to follow, and, even though he’s hearing rather than reading the stories, he states,
“It is a veritable labyrinth. I had always thought that novels and other works of that kind should be written in several columns like chronological tables.”
“You are right,” said Rebecca…. “That would no doubt clarify the story.”
After Velasquez clarifies that he wishes the stories would be presented more systematically and logically, Rebecca replies: “Yes, indeed…. Continual surprises don’t keep one’s interest in the story alive. One can never foresee what will happen subsequently.” After one more dig, van Worden realizes “that Rebecca was making fun of all of us.” The author takes the last word here; but at the end of the 35th day, with its four layers of tales, Velasquez the geometer states, “I was right to foresee that the stories of the gypsy would get entangled one with another…. I hope the gypsy will tell us what became of fair Ines. But if he interpolates yet another story, I’ll fallout with him… Meanwhile I don’t believe that our storyteller will be coming back this evening.” He is not refuted. In these passages, Potocki performs the neat trick of sympathizing with and challenging his readers. Potocki seems keenly aware of the “level of reader annoyance” (I seem to recall DFW using the phrase, as applied by an editor to himself) for which he is aiming, and which he thinks the interest of the work can withstand.
There are many more examples of these metafictional flourishes; the convenient summoning and dismissal or departure of the Wandering Jew, and the discussion of same, form another fascinatingly self-conscious thread, especially in its play with the supernatural and listeners’ (and readers’) attitude toward it. But more on that shortly. Another simple but telling example: the continuation of the gypsy chief’s tale with the phrase “the gypsy, having nothing else to do, continued his story as follows.” Having nothing else to do. Does Potocki intend his metafiction and modernism as avant-garde gestures and comments on his society, his self? Or does he have nothing else to do, and amuse himself by complicating his narrative, even to the point of talking back to himself? Part of the attraction and the frustration of reading historical works is the difficulty of grasping the mind behind the work — their frame of reference, the culture and society and family and history and canon to which they are responding. Potocki is clearly and explicitly writing in many traditions here, and responding to them, but it is hard to find the motivations behind those responses.
August 31, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: A Child Again, by Robert Coover.
Reading next: Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser.
Don’t we all find the postmodern retelling of the classic tale a little played out by now? Aren’t we more or less sick of old stories from new perspectives (as my wife Jaime says, books following the The [insert traditionally male occupation]’s Wife/Maid/Daughter template have truly reached the saturation/nauseatingly trite level), contemporary retellings of “timeless” legends, extensions and expansions of bare-bones myths and folktales? Or is it just me? Is this, in fact, Barth’s “literature of exhaustion,” or is it me that’s exhausted?
Actually, though, to be honest, I’m more often exhausted by the idea than I am by the stories themselves. I like this stuff — I like Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Gardner, all those scavenger-sorcerers digesting and regurgitating literary history. (Did I just admit to liking literary vomit? I guess I did.) Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber might be my favorite example, but there are many, many others.
Coover has seemed exhausted a few times so far in this collection — especially the first story, “Sir John Paper Returns to Honah-Lee,” a little metafiction about Puff the Magic Dragon, which dragged on and on. But other times he’s been in fine form; enough that I’ll probably have to do a little top-5 recap to cover all the stories I really liked here once I’m done. I’m surprised that I bought this a few years back, and a little surprised I still wanted to read it: it contains a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, for chrissakes, which I really felt no need to read another version of after reading Angela Carter. Also a ribald version of Snow White. I have never said to myself, “Someone needs to write a ribald retelling of Snow White.”
And yet I’m still reading. The story that kept me reading was “Playing House,” mysterious and wonderful and sinister. The story that showed me something I didn’t know (or remember) about Coover was “The Return of the Dark Children,” which is a straight-up awesome horror story that happens to also build on the Pied Piper tale. (This story could easily be a J-Horror blockbuster at a cineplex near you.) And the story that crystallized for me why I’m still reading is “McDuff on the Mound,” which is “Casey at the Bat” from the pitcher’s point of view.
I value a story like this because it exists to make you think about why it was written, and why you are reading it. It’s a kind of literary riddle, or postmodern thriller (which there is an actual riddle-story in this collection, too): the suspense builds from all the wrong angles, as you try to guess why it was written, and what the author will do with it. Instead of absorbing you in the details of the plot, it absorbs you in the mind of the author, and in your own ideas about what literature is for, and why you value it.
In “McDuff on the Mound,” you get strangely sucked into the buildup of Mudville’s bottom of the ninth; McDuff, utterly fatalistic, feels wrapped up in a system beyond his control as two horrible hitters make it on base. He feels the inevitability of having to face mighty Casey. Astonishingly, even though you know exactly how the story has ended, you realize that you do not know that that is how Coover will choose to end it here; every retelling is an opportunity to rewrite, to find the recessive genes that were hidden within the DNA of the story. (Incidentally, this is perhaps the most incredible thing about Inglourious Basterds, which I just saw last week. Do you anticipate the audacity of rewriting history — of showing a revision of the world, in all its gory detail? I found myself flabbergasted at the scene in the theater — still do, actually.)
Or not; it may be that the story exists to more fully map the story’s DNA, but not to change its ultimate expression. And this is the true subject of these retellings: you and the author, thinking about why stories work the way they do, and what you want out of them.
Me, I suspect Coover began this story with (or perhaps wrote this story as an excuse to include) this kick-ass exegesis of the name Casey; certainly the slapstick passages earlier in the story feel like padding compared to the energy and enthusiasm in this paragraph:
And Casey: who was Casey? A Hero, to be sure. A Giant. A figure of grace and power, yes, but wasn’t he more than that? He was tall and mighty (omnipotent, some claimed, though perhaps, like all fans, they’d got a bit carried away), with a great mustache and a merry knowing twinkle in his eye. Was he, as had been suggested, the One True Thing? McDuff shook to watch him. He was ageless, older than Mudville certainly, though Mudville claimed him as their own. Some believed that “Casey” was a transliteration of the initials “K.C.” and stood for King Christ. Others, of a similar but simpler school, opted for King Corn, while another group believed it to be a barbarism for Krishna. Some, rightly observing that “case” meant “event,” pursued this meaning back to its primitive root, “to fall,” and thus saw in Casey (for a case was also a container) the whole history and condition of man, a history perhaps as yet incomplete. On the other hand, a case was also an oddity, was it not, and a medical patient, and maybe, said some, mighty Casey was the sickest of them all. Yet a case was an example, cried others, plight, the actual state of things, while a good many thought all such mystification was so much crap, and Casey was simply a good ballplayer….
So what do you think, with that setup in mind? Knowing what you know (or don’t know) about Robert Coover, what’s he do with this story? What do you want him to do?
August 6, 2009 § 1 Comment
Now reading: White-Jacket, by Herman Melville.
It’s tough to read White-Jacket on its own terms, and not as The Book Before Moby-Dick. Too much fun, for instance, to see how Melville’s approach to designing his narrative and combining his mini-essays, reminiscences, fictional events, and factual chapters into a cohesive whole changed from this book to his masterpiece.
Moby-Dick is, obviously, much more successful at this, but the earlier book is different in interesting ways. W-J does not begin with a compelling narrative like the adventures of Ishmael and Queequeg, propelling the reader into the more various and philosophical chapters of the book’s middle; instead, it begins with a mildly humorous description of the eponymous white jacket, made of patches and scraps of fabric. To the reader accustomed to Melville, the chapter and the device of the jacket are irresistible as a metafiction, a metaphor for the entire work, for his style in general: the patchwork, uncanny (“white as a shroud”), self-made, absorbent jacket is a fine symbol of Melville’s work. Besides which, that whiteness: already creeping into (or back into, if such a coat actually existed) Melville’s mind, the pariah, mysterious whiteness.
(Also, as in M-D, the beginning of the narrative is not actually the beginning of the book. Here, there’s a preface (in the English edition) or note (in the American) in which Melville states that he’s used his own “man-of-war experiences and observations” in the book. Unlike the extravagant legend-building in the paratextual opening of M-D, here there’s an avowal of basis in fact and truth, in real life. Melville still not over the sting of Mardi‘s dismissal, not yet ready to write another giant piece of fiction.)
After this opening, W-J slips into the kind of observations of nautical life loosely joined to a fictional framework which occupy much of M-D‘s middle — but without doing much of the work of helping us identify with the narrator or the other characters on the ship. The observations are engaging enough, but the reader is left with a lot of unanswered, nagging questions about the narrator, and about how to read the book (interestingly, the preface in the English edition encourages the reader to read the book as fact-based fiction, while the American-edition note makes it seem a work of biography).
And yet the voice into which Melville is growing — has grown, it seems, by this point in his career — compels. There’s a great section from chapters 16 to 19, including a furious chapter, full of complex, fascinating rhetoric, about the injustice of war and worthless preparations for war; an ironic, contrapuntal chapter about the desperate attempts to save anyone fallen overboard on a man-of-war; a smooth segue into a beautiful statement of the man-of-war “full as a Nut,” a kind of floating city or world; and a gorgeous chapter, containing a premonition of the Icarus theme in M-D and a paean to sailors, who “expatriate ourselves to nationalize with the universe.”
Melville said he wrote Redburn and White-Jacket for the money, plain and simple; it’s a gross simplification, of course, because the man was full of interesting thoughts and interesting words, and got himself invested in whatever he was working on. And yet (even a fraction of the way in, as I am into W-J) the difference is plainly there, between these works and M-D, or even between these and Mardi or Pierre. To my own surprise, I find the difference is not so much one of sincerity, or deeper thinking, or even of finding a theme worthy of his best work. No: the difference is one of artifice. Melville was at his most rigorously artificial, his most fantastical and fictional, when he cared most, when he felt he was playing for artistic and aesthetic keeps. For Melville, plain speaking could only lead to superficial understanding.