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.
Art Is Hard.
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.
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.