March 27, 2011 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy.
Reading next: The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Art sometimes comes at you in waves, whether you choose it or not. More or less unintentionally, after the jolly laffs of You Know Me Al I’ve been spending the past few weeks with art like a series of hard slaps across the face, forehand and back, the skin rubbed raw. That image is one of the trademarks of the Japanese army in Masaki Kobayashi’s film trilogy The Human Condition.
Almost ten hours of pain, suffering, and moral anguish, it becomes, somewhere around the third of its six parts, hypnotic and all-consuming, thanks mostly to the astounding brilliance of its cinematography, editing, and formal composition, and the performance of the great Tatsuya Nakadai. That is, unless you find it completely unwatchable. Which is perfectly valid.
As for me, watching it while I was also reading Tolstoy — not just Tolstoy, late Tolstoy, prophet-howling-in-the-wilderness Tolstoy — left a sense of having my brain scrubbed thoroughly and left out to dry: unpleasant, perhaps, but necessary. The works share a directness and search for fundamental principles and truths that’s more or less absent from contemporary discourse. You can’t subsist on a steady diet of this stuff — at least I can’t — but you need some of it, or your soul dies.
As with Kobayashi’s film, Tolstoy is readable thanks to his formal genius and artistic integrity, through which he attempts to wake his audience to the insanity of so many societal conventions. And yet the works themselves are hardly transparent panes through which to show problems. Madness runs deep in each work, and in three consecutive Tolstoy stories I read, it was inescapable as text or as subtext.
“The Diary of a Madman,” a short work left unfinished, shows how a man comes to a kind of holy madness — the madness of Lear and mysticism — through three lonely confrontations with death and God. Tolstoy presents these experiences as uncanny, and they are, but they also felt familiar to me, a kind of universal:
A clean, whitewashed, square room. How tormenting it was to me, I remember, that this little room was precisely square. There was one window, with a curtain — red…. And anguish, anguish, such spiritual anguish as comes before vomiting, only spiritual. Eerie, frightening, it seems you’re frightened of death, but then you recollect, you think about life, and you’re frightened of your dying life. Somehow life and death merged into one. Something was tearing my soul to pieces and yet could not tear it. Once more I went and looked at the sleeping men, once more I tried to fall asleep, it was all that same terror — red, white, square.
The translation here is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and they convey the confusing rush of words, the crisis of this uncanny sensation of coming face to face with the point of your existence. It comes across as the kind of spiritual vomiting the narrator mentions. But there are those lucid details, in this incident and those that follow it, those sensory impressions, and that artful recapitulation of “red, white, square.”
I wonder if this story and the novellas “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kreutzer Sonata” all function as entries in a madman’s diary on a metafictional level, as well. If Tolstoy was trying to rid his work of decadent description and layers of meaning and present experiences from soul to soul, he could not help himself: he was too much an artist. There is too much ambiguity in the ending of “Death of the Madman,” in the holy-foolishness or actual insanity of a character who gives away his possessions and claims to be afraid of nothing, and too much ambiguity in all of his stories. Thank God.
“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is certainly a moving work of art on Tolstoy’s terms (as I understand them, which is surely rudimentary). I love the section near the end, when Ivan “lying face to the back of the sofa,” dying in “solitude… had lived only on imaginings of the past,” memories from his childhood of tastes, incidents, family. As he dies, at the end, we read the following:
He indicated his son to his wife with his eyes and said:
“Take him away… sorry… for you, too…” He also wanted to say “Forgive,” but said “Forgo,” and, no longer able to correct himself, waved his hand, knowing that the one who had to would understand.
Okay, fine. God will understand. But what about us, and what about his family, from which he feels so estranged? Did he want to say “Forgive” because he is forgiving them, or because he wants them to forgive him? And what are they to understand from “Forgo”? One last message of moral disapproval from him, telling them to give up their decadence? (It’s clear, from the beginning of the story at Ivan’s wake, that they do not.) The story is something of a tragedy, something of a comedy in the Dantean sense, thanks especially to that “Forgo.”
Finally, there’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” which is a feverish nightmare. The nightmarish quality of the story comes in part from its narration by a murderer, Pozdnyshev, in a train compartment with the framing device’s first-person narrator, but it also stems from our (or at least my) confusion about Tolstoy’s stance towards Pozdnyshev, towards the narrator, towards the events of the story. It reminded me a bit of Dickens killing off Dora in David Copperfield: is Pozdnyshev speaking for Tolstoy in his justification for murdering his wife, a kind of wish-fulfillment like Dickens’?
Whatever the case may be, Tolstoy presents Pozdnyshev as driven insane by sexual jealousy, with or without justification, and Tolstoy seems to be arguing primarily against the basic human sexual impulse. This is so crazy that even at the time people were misreading the story as an attack on the institution of marriage. And yet, as a document of the inextricable complications of sex, love, marriage, feelings of “ownership,” it’s an enduring work of art. Into this work of art Tolstoy inserts another, the titular sonata, which Pozdnyshev calls “a fearful thing,” presenting a brief theory of art and especially music as neither “elevating” nor “abasing,” but “provoking.” He equates the artist with the hypnotist, fearing that “this hypnotist [artist] should be the first immoral man who comes along.” The stakes of art are high for Pozdnyshev, and it’s no stretch to see him as a surrogate for Tolstoy here. He takes on the voice of a man who loses his mind and kills his wife. He writes this story and shows us the murder occurring, using it to form a passionate argument against passion. Moral or immoral? Did Tolstoy create beautiful, ambiguous works of art in his right mind, or in spite of himself?
January 22, 2011 § 1 Comment
Finished: David Copperfield.
So at last, we’ve reached the end. As Dickensian endings go, it’s not one of my favorites, though it’s certainly what you would expect from him, and I suppose it’s successful on his own terms. Nevertheless, here are my favorite passages from the last number of DC:
I came, one evening before sunset, down into a valley, where I was to rest. In the course of my descent to it, by the winding track along the mountain-side, from which I saw it shining far below, I think some long-unwonted sense of beauty and tranquillity, some softening influence awakened by its peace, moved faintly in my breast. I remember pausing once, with a kind of sorrow that was not all oppressive, not quite despairing. I remember almost hoping that some better change was possible within me.
This chapter, “Absence,” is mostly Dickens at his worst, and for being so full of emotion and despair it feels rather like he put a stamp on it and mailed it in. Which is not to say that it’s not interesting or useful: it could function as a kind of paint-by-numbers of Victorian poses and cliches and sentimentality and unexamined truisms. For instance, there’s this passage about Switzerland, in which David’s standard impression of the “sublimity and wonder” of his setting gives way to the moment in which “great Nature spoke to” him, though the power of mountain scenery at sunset and the sound of peasant-folk — shepherds — singing in the distance, just as if on their way to visit the baby Jesus. You could do a lot worse for an examination of the decay of Romanticism into Victorian piety, or for a literary equivalent to the overwrought landscapes so popular at the time. Nevertheless, there’s something insightful and true in the paragraph above, in David’s sense of the gradations of sorrow (or, as we might say now, depression) lightening, giving way to just the “possibility” that all might not be lost. Then, of course, because this is Victorian England, “great Nature” (with capital N) speaks and David lays down on Swiss grass (who has ever done this, ever, ever, this laying down on grass overcome with emotion?) and bawls for the wife he secretly wished was dead all along.
A small sharp-looking lad, half-footboy and half-clerk, who was very much out of breath, but who looked at me as if he defied me to prove it legally, presented himself.
I’ll let this quick little sketch of Traddles’ servant stand in for the whole wonderful first part of the chapter, on David’s return to London and anxiety for the state of Traddles considering his living situation, leading to the delight of seeing him in domestic bliss (contrasted, despite its crowded and difficult nature, with the domestic squalor of David and Dora’s life — the difference, it is implied, being Traddles and Sophy not making the mistake of being too horny and getting married young, and therefore maintaining a balance of affection and dutiful service). I love it when Dickens can’t help but invent a little character for those people he needs only to move the plot along — this footboy need not have do more than open a door, or not exist at all and just have Traddles open it in his impoverished state, but Dickens gives him this sharpness and protective reluctance and breathlessness of having (I’d guess) been playing with Sophy’s sisters.
When I returned, Mr. Wickfield had come home, from a garden he had, a couple of miles or so out of the town, where he now employed himself almost every day. I found him as my aunt had described him. We sat down to dinner, with some half-dozen little girls; and he seemed but the shadow of his handsome picture on the wall.
Not a terribly remarkable piece of prose, but what interested me about this passage was how much it reminded me of Tolstoy, who greatly admired Dickens. That little detail about Wickfield, recovered from his Heep-encouraged alcoholism and dissipation, taking up gardening in the country, like Levin from Anna Karenina having his epiphany about the value of working the land. Agnes, meanwhile, opening a girls’ school. And the conversation that follows, in which Wickfield reflects on the wrongs he’s committed, the great love he’s received from Agnes, and the story of his own long-dead wife: all of it seems quite like something out of Tolstoy. Actually, nearly all of this last number seems that way to me, especially in the Agnes-David plot.
After some conversation among these gentlemen, from which I might have supposed that there was nothing in the world to be legitimately taken into account but the supreme comfort of prisoners, at any expense, and nothing on the wide earth to be done outside prison-doors, we began our inspection. It being then just dinner-time, we went, first into the great kitchen, where every prisoner’s dinner was in course being set out separately (to be handed to him in his cell), with the regularity and precision of clock-work. I said aside, to Traddles, that I wondered whether it occurred to anybody, that there was a striking contrast between these plentiful repasts of choice quality, and the dinners, not to say of paupers, but of soldiers, sailors, laborers, the great bulk of the honest, working community; of whom not one man in five hundred ever dined half so well. But I learned that the “system” required high living…
A fascinating set piece, this chapter, entitled “I Am Shown Two Interesting Penitents.” It is one of Dickens’ standard curtain-call chapters, in which loose ends are wrapped up and popular secondary characters are given one last scene in which to take a bow. But in this case, the chapter is almost completely detachable from the larger narrative, and concerns David and Traddles visiting a prison. There are all sorts of interesting features here, but what’s most interesting to me is how Dickens, whose own father was in debtors’ prison for a while, clearly had not given much consideration to criminal incarceration, or the purposes of imprisonment, or the means of making prisons places for rehabilitation rather than holding pens of punishment and misery. These were all hot topics in Victorian society, but Dickens, in this chapter, displays a kind of knee-jerk distaste for the whole subject that’s rather unlike him — insisting, instead, that too much effort is being expended on the behalf of criminals, when more should be spent on the poor and needy who have not committed crimes. It is a punishment-based view of prison, in other words. All the same, his eye does catch some of the absurdities and hypocrisies of the nascent prison industry.
We stood together in the same old-fashioned window at night, when the moon was shining; Agnes with her quiet eyes raised up to it; I following her glance. Long miles of road then opened out before my mind; and, toiling on, I saw a ragged way-worn boy, forsaken and neglected, who should come to call even the heart now beating against mine, his own.
This is, in essence, The End. Dickens always seems to end his plots before the end, then either gives more curtain calls or telescopes his vision to encapsulate a view of the rest of a life — like those synopses of what happened to characters at the end of movies. Here, you can tell it’s the end by the use of three intra-chapter breaks — quite unusual in Dickens. And it’s quite a fine “last” line, too, David viewing in the moon’s glow his own remarkable journey from hopeless orphan to winner of his true love’s heart.
“For Em’ly,” he said, as he put it in his breast. “I promised, Mas’r Davy.”
A happily-ever-after chapter, with a clever little fairy-tale allusion at its beginning, and this sweetly sorrowful fairy-tale ending of eternal fidelity and redemption. A reminder that Dickens could, occasionally, be understated.
Traddles’s house is one of the very houses — or it easily may have been — which he and Sophy used to parcel out, in their evening walks. It is a large house; but Traddles keeps his papers in his dressing-room, and his boots with his papers; and he and Sophy squeeze themselves into upper rooms, reserving the best bed-rooms for the Beauty and the girls.
I love that turn of phrase, “his papers in his dressing-room, and his boots with his papers.” In this last chapter, Dickens mixes the dark with the light, as always, giving us brief cautionary tales to go along with the happinesses of the main characters. It’s interesting to me that he grew so fond of Traddles and his family that he gets nearly the last mention, and much longer than the brief sentences at the end about Agnes. I would’ve sworn, upon first meeting him and reading about his strange habit of drawing skeletons everywhere, that he was just a tertiary comic character, invented to take abuse from Creakle and little else, perhaps showing up now and again later as a happy-go-lucky sad sack. Shows what I know.
January 6, 2010 § 1 Comment
Just finished: Dombey and Son.
For all that talking I did about its comedy, Dombey is a melancholy book, as dark as Bleak House in some sections. In fact, it’s dark enough that I was actually relieved that there was some redemption at its end: Dickens was beginning to seem downright deterministic until the last few chapters when some characters actually change. There’s a lot of death in the book, and a lot of talk about capital-d Death. It looms over the book.
Also, contrary to what its title would lead you to believe, the business of this novel is almost never business, at least not on the surface. For all the talk of how rich Dombey is, and how respected his firm is, we get nary a glimpse of the work the firm actually does. It involves pursuits around the world (or at least around the British Empire, amounting to nearly the same thing at this point). At least according to the title, it sells goods “Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation.” That’s it. That’s all we know.
But death and business come together at some of the key moments in the book, in its most famous passages. The first time we hear little Paul speak, he asks his father, “Papa! what’s money?” This eventually leads to his asking the heartbreaking question, “If it’s a good thing, and can do anything… I wonder why it didn’t save me my Mama.” Then there are the passages on the 1840s boom in the railroad industry. In chapter 20, we read a sustained litany on the train as Death embodied: death for the landscape, for the village, for the traveler. In the three other sections on the train or the building of the railroads, this motif is continued, an astoundingly pessimistic view of this “progress” tempered only by the example of employment and advancement that work on the railroad provides the lower-class Toodle family. It’s interesting to me how the coldness and calculation of Dombey, the consummate businessman, can be contrasted with the hellish fire and sordid waste of the railroad as presented by Dickens. That coldness and calculation, in fact, are what support and allow the Death — the brimstone and destruction of the countryside, the inhuman pace — that the railroad brings.
But most of all, there’s chapter 55. It has one of the great Dickensian chapter-titles, a cruel, riddling little joke: “How Rob the Grinder Lost His Place.” It’s brilliant, a classic example of the vengeful Dickens savoring the murder of one of his wicked creations from inside that creation’s own skin (it’s so odd, this feeling that Dickens is both suffering along with his character and enjoying the frenzied narration of that suffering). It reminded me of his treatment of Jonas Chuzzlewit in his previous novel, though I found Jonas’s death more affecting and more successful as a work of literary art. The paragraph of the train closing in on Carker as he realizes where he stands is a great example of the proto-cinematic Dickens: all jump-cuts and close-ups, it could’ve been filmed by Eisenstein. There’s also the strange parallel to the ending of Anna Karenina, which is kind of neither here nor there; the similarity in circumstance, however, makes you somehow question whether Carker’s death is actually an accident or somehow suicidal, too. I’m glad, at any rate, that it’s Carker and not Edith that is destroyed; while I don’t think Dickens ends up making any grand feminist statement on Edith’s behalf, at least she doesn’t end up dead (and also doesn’t allow Carker to get his filthy cat-like paws all over her).
Carker’s dispersal by train into “mutilated fragments” is perfect, in that Carker represents the combination of Dombey the businessman’s calculation with the locomotive’s excessive heat and (blood)lust. Dickens is always looking for ways to direct capital in the right directions, in ways that can help common people. I can’t help but thinking that, in exploding the ambitious but overreaching businessman who makes reckless gambles for personal gain without a thought for the people he is affecting, he is allegorically commenting on the flow of money to support the building of railroads.
January 27, 2008 § Leave a comment
I’ve been traveling by air quite a bit lately–home to Nebraska, on business to Minneapolis and New York. It’s funny: for all the hackneyed comic routines about air travel (“What’s the deal with those peanuts?”), examinations of the experience itself, once you’re in the air, seem rare and, when you do find them, superficial. (A notable exception: Ron Rosenbaum’s hilarious but thought-provoking analysis of SkyMall products, in Slate.)
What we’re talking about here is one of the great marvels of modern life, an utter miracle that has become so mundane that I can, without batting an eye, use the word “hackneyed” in descriptions of comedians’ complaints about the experience. Flying out from LaGuardia on Friday night, my plane was stuck in the queue to take off for half and hour and everyone on the flight was getting restless, annoyed, fidgety. And then, finally, it was our turn; we hurtled into space; and, thanks to the enormous air traffic of NYC, we were directed to circle around for a while before heading south. The night was wind-swept, clear, crisp. We were treated to a 360° view of Manhattan–this country’s nerve center, the apple of the world’s eye, radiant and golden, its entire length and breadth and height encompassed in the view from my window. The other boroughs sprawled to the horizons, the Statue of Liberty stood with ships passing on all sides, other aircraft whizzed and angled below us. I looked around: maybe ten people were looking out the window. The rest were trying to sleep, preparing iPods for the moment they could be switched on, reading printouts or magazines or books.
Don’t get me wrong: air travel is definitely a pain in the ass, and there are countless things wrong with it. A good book is a godsend for a flight, if only so you can look preoccupied to the chatterbox sitting next to you. But I wonder if we appreciate that many of us now routinely view things in a way that, only a few generations ago, a large percentage of the population would have thought reserved for the eyes of God and his angels.
But I digress. It’s a great pleasure to glance up from your book to the sight of an ephemeral cloud-continent, a sun on the horizon obscured from the ground, or a vast snow-covered plain, a quilt of roads, acreages, towns, and rivers. Dickens or Tolstoy might be the perfect reading for air travel: their all-encompassing social landscapes nicely counterbalanced with the individual, the specific, the episodic and anecdotal. You look out the window and imagine all those lives, down below: the beehive of the world, all of those individuals on their various paths, about their various tasks, bound together in ways you’d never be able to see from the ground. (Not to mention all those lives on the plane with you, with their varied destinations, motivations, inhibitions, and phobias.)
Of course, you can go the opposite direction, as well: the writers of the OuLiPo group, with their emphasis on the innumerable possibilities to be found within rigorous restraints, read very well in mid-air. Life: A User’s Manual, by Georges Perec, is recommended here, as is The Conversions, by Harry Mathews. The mixture in both of these of surrealist incident, wordplay, and human futility is especially compelling when dangling six miles above the earth in a metal tube at high speed, entirely dependent for the continuation of your life on the workings of many, many intricate machines. I’d imagine Beckett is also interesting–I mean, the absurdity of it all!–but I’ve never partaken.
In any case, a flight provides an excellent opportunity to focus, reflect, and ruminate on literature in what passes these days for a distraction-free environment. Get a window seat, rest your eyes on the landscape or the cloudscape, and think about the connections among things, the distances between things, the spaces above the earth that the gods alone used to inhabit.