Time Passing, Time Stopping

February 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Just finished: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf.

Reading next: Tales of the Unexpected, by Roald Dahl.

Some alternate titles that popped into my head while reading To the Lighthouse:

Ulysses Takes a Holiday.

Daddy Dearest.

Art Is Hard.

People Thinking.

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire.

None quite right to summarize the entire book, though.  It’s a demonstrably great work of literature; a work great enough to title its tour de force middle section covering the years of World War I “Time Passes,” the ultimate boring title.  As it happens, time passing is one of the main areas of inquiry for Woolf, one of the central mysteries of life as a human.

“Time Passes” is beautiful, full of gorgeous allusion and lyricism, in fifteen or so artful pages documenting the death and misery of the Ramsay family as World War I approaches and ends, and the decay in their vacation home, which sits abandoned for ten years.  Nature’s operations on the island form a kind of expressionist depiction of the war.  Deaths occur in subordinate clauses, in passing.

This short section comes between two much longer sections which each document less than a day each, slowing time to a crawl, skipping from one mind’s workings to another, as not much of anything happens.  As incredible as “Time Passes” is, it’s much easier for me to understand how it was written, and to see myself writing something similar to it, than to understand how Virginia Woolf could possibly have had the patience to write out the excruciating details of interpersonal minutiae which, to be honest and more than a little ashamed, drive me crazy about so much of the English high modernists.  I simply cannot imagine myself sitting down and facing the blank page day after day and continuing to write about nothing happening, continuing to parse every single motion and interaction for its sexual, socioeconomic, political, and/or generational significance.  To build up a collage of impressions of the eminent Victorians, the Ramsays, and the doubtful artist, Lily Briscoe, from symbols, and flights of mental fancy, and memory and dream, as time stands still for pages on end.  It would drive me to despair.

As an example, there are the long, comma-larded sentences like this:

Mrs Ramsay, who had been sitting loosely, folding her son in her arm, braced herself, and, half turning, seemed to raise herself with an effort, and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating (quietly though she sat, taking up her stocking again), and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare.

Sentences like this provoke in me equal parts exasperation and awe, a mixture that seems unique in my experience to reading modernists such as Woolf, Forster, and Beckett, though oddly hardly ever Joyce (with whom I hardly ever feel exasperated — well, maybe the “Oxen of the Sun” section of Ulysses).   The transition into and out of “Time Passes,” with its wonderful and elegiac  movement, lyricism, is so beautiful and poignant as to justify the investment in such sentences, the investment in the fine web of allusion and symbol that Woolf creates.  The way in which time passes only very slowly in the rest of the book is precisely the point: the capturing in amber of the days in which art is created, insights discovered, people remain alive, learning how to live and understand each other.

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.

The Preoccupied Text

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.

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