July  30, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

How restful it must once have been, in another age, to be prosperous and believe that an all-knowing supernatural force had allotted people to their stations in life. And not see how the belief served your own prosperity—a form of anosognosia, a useful psychiatric term for a lack of awareness of one’s own condition. Now we think we do see, how do things stand? After the ruinous experiments of the lately deceased century, after so much vile behaviour, so many deaths, a queasy agnosticism has settled around these matters of justice and redistributed wealth. No more big ideas. The world must improve, if at all, by tiny steps. People mostly take an existential view—having to sweep the streets for a living looks like simple bad luck. It’s not a visionary age. The streets need to be clean. Let the unlucky enlist.
--Saturday by Ian McEwan

McEwan’s Non-Guilt Guilt, Part II
So why harp on a little peccadillo like McEwan’s non-guilt guilt fetish/ritual?  Well, because he’s the one claiming that, in the absence of God, there can be still be a kind of grandeur to life.  That is certainly a defensible theme.  But he ain’t gonna get there by way of these ethical lapses.  Even the Bible recognizes that it is a greater evil, a greater sin, a greater moral failing, call it what you will to satisfy your own biases, for one to knowingly lead others astray.  In other words, pace McEwan, it may be wrong to eat a lobster that had just been boiled alive but it’s even worse to do that knowing that it suffers indescribable pain and paying for someone else, who doesn’t hold that view, to boil it for you.  You have just caused the cook to burn in a deep fryer for all of eternity, lightly basted by a flour and herb batter (hmmmm, fried and cooked fry-cook, yummy).  Anyhow, the failure to see this moral dilemma points out why one can’t simply make up their [n.b.: regarding pronoun agreement, “their” I go again] ethics as they go along.

Let’s look at a couple more of McEwan’s non-guilt guilt shenanigans, shall we? Here’s Henry Perowne musing upon his mother who is confined to a nursing home and suffers from senile dementia:

That’s when he feels he’s betraying her, leaving her behind in her shrunken life, sneaking away to the riches, the secret hoard of his own existence. Despite the guilt, he can’t deny the little lift he feels, the lightness in his step when he turns his back and walks away from the old people’s place and takes his car keys from his pocket and embraces the freedoms that can’t be hers. Everything she has now fits into her tiny room. And she hardly possesses the room because she’s incapably of finding it unaided, or even of knowing that she has one. And when she is in it, she doesn’t recognize her things. It’s no longer possible to bring her to the Square to say, or take her on excursions; a small journey disorients or even terrifies her. She has to remain behind, and naturally she doesn’t understand that either.

As Saturday Night Live’s Church Lady would exclaim, “how convenient!” Certainly, this is McEwan’s book and he can stack the deck as much as he wants for his own amusement.  As I argued earlier, it is best to read this book as a modern secular fairy tale—and as this vignette with Perowne’s mother underlines, this book certainly should not be taken as some insightful ethical dilemma.  There’s no dilemma at all.  Granny can’t live at the Square (I love that capitalization to point out just how important that 7000-square-foot mansion really is) because the mean ol’ sqware would fwighten gwanny-wanny.  There’s no choice but to shut her up in a nursing home—a very nice one, by the bye, although it lacks that certain grandeur of living at the Square (hmmm, maybe that’s the grandeur McEwan keeps harping on, after all: “That’s the only kind of faith he had. There’s grandeur in this view of life”—and a whole heap of delusion, too).  Perowne still feels a tug of non-guilt guilt but, unfortunately, there just isn’t anything he can do.  He’s doing his best, people.  Well, Mr. Perowne, we like ourselves, don’t we?  How convenient!

Let’s end these non-guilt guilt musings, shall we, with one final example that sums up the ultimate problem with this philosophy.  If, in this life, we do what we gotta do, and there’s no consequences to doing it, then, outside of a few transient pleasures from romping about in the Square, what’s the bloody point?  Well, McEwan, Void bless him, actually sees this dilemma as a virtue:

He has a hollow feeling from arguing only a half of what he feels. He’s a dove with Jay Strauss, and a hawk with his daughter. What sense is he making? And how luxurious, to work it all out at home in the kitchen, the geopolitical moves and military strategy, and not be held to account, by voters, newspapers, friends, history. When there are no consequences, being wrong is simply an interesting diversion.

Ahhh, yes, “an interesting diversion”—sort of like reading a litblog.  No, no, please, hold your applause, I’m just happy that I’m able to give a sense of purpose—without consequences—to our faithful readers.

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July  29,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

There is grandeur in this view of life. When he wakes properly two hours later she’s gone and the room is silent. There’s a narrow column of light where a shutter stands ajar. The day looks fiercely white. He pushes the covers aside and lies on his back in her part of the bed, naked in the warmth of the central heating, waiting to place the phrase. Darwin of course, from last night’s read in the bath, in the final paragraph of his great work Perowne has never actually read. Kindly, driven, infirm Charles in all his humility, bringing on the earthworms and planetary cycles to assist him with a farewell bow. To soften the message, he also summoned up the Creator, but his heart wasn’t in it and he ditched Him in later editions. Those five hundred pages deserved only one conclusion: endless and beautiful forms of life, such as you see in a common hedgerow, including exalted beings like ourselves, arose from physical laws, from war of nature, famine and death. This is the grandeur. And a bracing kind of consolation in the brief privilege of consciousness.
--Saturday by Ian McEwan

A More Balanced View of Kadare
The Globe and Mail has an article from a couple of days ago that offers what appears to be a much more balanced view about Ismail Kadare’s supposed links to the repressive Communist regime of Enver Hoxha.  No, he ain’t no choir boy.  But he was no lap dog, either—which his work, The Pyramid (a moving parable condemning totalitarianism), should make clear.  So, as it turns out, Kadare is a great writer but a flawed human being.  That sounds about right, and quite appropriate, too, for the first recipient of the Man Booker International Prize.

McEwan’s Non-Guilt Guilt
Chesterton, as discussed earlier this month, is considered the king of paradox (indeed, there’s a decent study on this aspect of his writing by the great critic, Hugh Kenner, titled, not surprisingly, Paradox in Chesterton).  Chesterton, though, in his later writings, had the bad habit of putting the paradox cart before the literary horse, so that this stylistic tic, instead of serving his writing, seemed, instead, to be the raison d’etre for it.  That being the case, even Chesterton would not attempt to scale one of the minor themes McEwan dilates upon in his new book, Saturday: non-guilt guilt.

Henry Perowne, McEwan’s saintly neurosurgeon protagonist, is a wealthy man. But, this being modern, secular Britain, he’s pained by his wealth.  This, in no way, means that he will renounce his wealth.  Please, don’t be so churlish.  Instead, he justifies his wealth (and all the accoutrements and habits that cling like barnacles in its wake) by engaging in an elaborate ritual of non-guilt guilt.  Given that this ritual is not described explicitly in these terms, one suspects that the author, too, is a devotee of this arcane ceremonies.  Let’s start with Perowne’s car, “a silver Mercedes S 500 with cream upholstery”—it’s not clear if Ricardo Montalban should step in at this point and caress the “rich Corinthian leather”:

For months he drove it apologetically, rarely in fourth gear, reluctant to overtake, waving on right-turning traffic, punctilious in permitting cheaper cars their road space. He was cured at last by a fishing trip to north-west Scotland with Jay Strauss. Seduced by the open road and Jay’s exultant celebration of “Lutheran genius,” Henry finally accepted himself as the owner, the master, of his vehicle. In fact, he’s always quietly considered himself a good driver: as in the theatre, firm, precise, defensive to the correct degree. He and Jay fished the streams and lochans around Torridon for brown trout. One wet afternoon, glancing over his shoulder while casting, Henry saw his car a hundred yards away, parked at an angle on a rise of the track, picked out in soft light against a backdrop of birch, flowering heather and thunderous black sky—the realisation of an ad man’s vision—and felt for the first time a gentle, swooning joy of possession. It is, of course, possible, permissible, to love an inanimate object. But this moment was the peak of the affair; since then his feelings have settled into, mild, occasional pleasure. The car gives him vague satisfaction when he’s driving it; the rest of the time it rarely crosses his mind. As its makers intended and promised, it’s become part of him.

Calm down there, McEwan, old boy, let’s not have Mr. Montalban start wiggling obscenely all over the hood of the car as the Scottish bagpipers play a twee melody in the dappled twilight (yes, McEwan includes a whiff of mockery in this description--but it's not enough to have one running for the emergency exits).  I detest irony more than the next man, but when McEwan wheels out the purplish prose here to honor a Mercedes, of all things, one wishes he was not quite so earnest about the whole ghastly enterprise (whiff of mockery or not).  Unfortunately, we know he is, since irony would taint his beautiful creation—the saintly miracle-worker, Henry Perowne.  McEwan, I would guess, drives a similar automobile (for a review that mentions this, and has plenty of other insightful things to say, go here.) More shame for him.  Let’s move on though, to another exhibit in Madame McEwan’s Museum of Non-Guilt Guilt.

Here’s an interesting wax confection, a nasty looking red lobster with claws rampant about to pinch off my finger.  Wait a sec’, it’s got black bands on its claws to keep it from snapping. Oh, the humanity . . . or, at least, the lobsternity!  Please, the next bit should be skipped over by those gentle readers with weak stomachs:

On the tiled floor by the open doorway, piled in two wooden crates like rusting industrial rejects, are the crabs and lobsters, and in the tangle of warlike body parts there is discernible movement. On their pincers they’re wearing funereal black bands. It’s fortunate for the fishmonger and his customers that sea creatures are not adapted to make use of sound waves and have no voice. Otherwise there’d be howling from those crates. Even the silence among the softly stirring crowd is troubling. He turns his gaze away, towards the bloodless white flesh, and eviscerated silver forms with their unaccusing stare, and the deep-sea fish arranged in handy overlapping steaks of innocent pink, like cardboard pages of a baby’s first book. Naturally, Perowne the fly-fisherman has seen the recent literature: scores of polymodal nociceptor sites just like ours in the head and neck of rainbow trout. It was once convenient to think biblically, to believe we’re surrounded for our benefit by edible automata on land and sea. Now it turns out that even fish feel pain. This the growing complication of the modern condition, the expanding circle of moral sympathy. Not only distant peoples are our brothers and sisters, but foxes too, and laboratory mice, and now the fish. Perowne goes on catching and eating them, and though he’d never drop a live lobster into boiling water, he’s prepared to order one in a restaurant.

I find this non-guilt guilt particularly monstrous when it comes to rationalizations like this one.  If you really believe that a lobster is akin (literally) to your brother and sister, then eating him is cannibalism even if you won’t cook him alive first, but would let someone else do it for you.  The horror, the horror.

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July  27,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

The plane emerges from the trees, crosses a gap and disappears behind the Post Office Tower. If Perowne were inclined to religious feeling, to supernatural explanations, he could play with the idea that he’s been summoned; that having woken in an unusual state of mind, and gone to the window for no reason, he should acknowledge a hidden order, an external intelligence which wants to show or tell him something of significance. But a city of its nature cultivates insomniacs; it is itself a sleepless entity whose wires never stop singing; among so many millions there are bound to be people staring out of windows when normally they would be asleep. And not the same people every night. That is should be him and not someone else is an arbitrary matter. A simple anthropic principle is involved. The primitive thinking of the supernaturally inclined amounts to what his psychiatric colleagues call a problem, or an idea, of reference. An excess of the subjective, the ordering of the world in line with your needs, an inability to contemplate your own unimportance.
--Saturday by Ian McEwan

Carapace v. Skeleton, Part III

Let us now travel back into the misty depths of time—oh, don’t get excited, we’re not visiting Tamerlane or Genghis Khan—nope, we’re visiting Steve Leveen, the CEO, of Levenger’s, from my post of July 10.  You might remember good ol’ Steve.  One day Steve was bored and was looking for some food, when out of his noggin came a bubblin’ crude . . . idea that is, pulp gold, a good read.  Well, the first thing you know, Steve started selling accessories for readers everywhere; and now his company is as big as Costello’s underwear.  There’s just one little hitch—he doesn't like books much.  Oh well, no one’s perfect.  Though he did offer this bon mot on why he couldn’t get through Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: “I found it not enough crime and too much punishment.”  In other words, not enough plot, not enough skeleton.  If one thinks about it, Dostoevsky’s plot—for a very long novel—can be summed up in a fairly short sentence:  Disillusioned poor boy thinks he is superior to everyone and their moral code which allows him to commit an acte gratuite of murder for which he is duly caught and punished, but not before being redeemed by the love of a beautiful . . . errr . . . not quite a maiden; let’s just leave it at that.  Doesn’t seem to be much there to tickle Mr. Leveen’s fancy as he counting all his ducats from the sale of faux mink sky-blue dust jackets.

But, for the great authors, the true literary masters, rarely is there all that much plot cluttering up their works.  Cervantes’ Don Quixote is just one durn thing after another.  Sterne is worse.  His masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent., is just one durn non-thing after another.  Indeed, at least Don Quixote has various episodes for our sad knight and paunchy squire to muck about in.  Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is all verbal fireworks and facility, with a major chunk of the book occurring in a downstairs drawing room between Tristram’s Da and his brother Toby, who sit around smoking waiting for the birth of Tristram.  That book’s nothing more than a bowl full of jelly with a bone or two floating about to add flavor—and a very tasty bowl it is, too.

Even someone like Henry James is more the master of atmosphere and character than of intricate plot (bless him).  His The Portrait of a Lady could also be summed up in a sentence.  Indeed, it has a curious foreshortening.  After the first part that builds up the atmosphere and characters, it accelerates rapidly to the climax where our heroine, Isabel Archer, at least in HJ’s eyes, is no longer a lady (hence the definitive article “the” in the title—once Isabel has ceased being a lady, her portrait of one is finished, for now and all time).  Following the climax, HJ quickly wraps up the work, leaving numerous loose ends which he doesn’t bother to tidy up.  He really could care less about the plot.  Or, even, the aesthetic shape of the novel itself—what, with its grotesquely gargantuan beginning head and arms and ending with quite spindly legs (a regular Popeye of a book).  HJ is concerned with getting the details of the portrait as finely painted, with as many subtle tints and tones, as any work by Titian or Rembrandt.  He succeeds, marvelously.

So, abandon all hope of plot (or carapace), ye who enter here.  Consider yourselves fair warned.

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July  26,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

There’s to be a new look—there’s always a new look—at the hospital’s Emergency Plan. Simple train crashes are no longer all that are envisaged, and words like “catastrophe” and “mass fatalities,” “chemical and biological warfare” and “major attack” have recently become bland through repetition.
--Saturday by Ian McEwan

Carapace v. Skeleton, Part II
Now, as of late, I’ve been ragging a bit on McEwan’s Saturday.  Although, from the start, I intimated that this was a great book that I highly recommend.  That’s true.  So let me start doing some scraping and back filling to explain that conclusion. And, lucky me, it happens to fit into my meanderings concerning the different uses of plot.  As I explained earlier, McEwan thought he was chiseling yet another tombstone in that vast, dreary cemetery of the genre I’ll refer to as psychological realism.  But he was actually creating something much finer and rarer—a secular fairy tale.  Like all great master craftsmen, McEwan really isn’t concerned about plot as the driving force of his novel.  The plot is very easy to summarize: Doctor Good annoys Bad Hood who follows Doctor Good back to his house, breaks in, terrifies Doctor Good’s family, gets outwitted (by a plot device that would cause Charles Dickens to cackle with incredulity and, probably, spontaneously combust), thrown down the stairs, cracks his head, and is then fixed up by Doctor Good.  Cue the strings.

This plot, though, is just a skeleton, a frame for what McEwan really cares about—how to live a decent life in the absence of God.  Not only can such a life be decent, but there can be a kind of grandeur, a largeness, about such a life.  McEwan then proceeds to illustrate this grandeur throughout the rest of the book which is tightly built around one day—Saturday.  The events which occur to our Good Doctor, Henry Perowne, emphasize this grandeur, from the miraculous workings of his profession as a neurosurgeon (not only is Perowne a Saint, as described earlier, but he is a modern-day miracle worker, too) to Perowne’s interactions with his own children, Daisy and Theo, who wield, respectively, the magician’s wands of poetry and music to create their own spheres of grandeur.  This theme echoes and reechoes throughout the fairy tale—errr—story.  The plot is just a convenient way to keep these episodes linked together; the particular elements of the “story” are irrelevant:

So far, Daisy’s reading lists have persuaded him that fiction is too humanly flawed, too sprawling and hit-and-miss to inspire uncomplicated wonder at the magnificence of human ingenuity, of the impossible dazzlingly achieved. Perhaps only music has such purity. Above all others he admires Bach, especially the keyboard music; yesterday he listened to two Partitas in the theatre while working on Andrea’s astrocytoma. And then there are the usual suspects—Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. His jazz idols, Evans, Davis, Coltrane. Cézanne, among various painters, certain cathedrals Henry has visited on holidays. Beyond the arts, his list of sublime achievement would include Einstein’s General Theory, whose mathematics he briefly grasped in his early twenties. He should make that list, he decides as he descends the broad stone stairs to the ground floor, though he knows he never will. Work that you cannot begin to imagine achieving yourself, that displays a ruthless, nearly inhuman element of self-enclosed perfection—this is his idea of genius. This notion of Daisy’s, that people can’t “live” without stories, is simply not true. He is living proof.

McEwan also uses the tightly constructed design of his novel to comment on the current concerns and mores of modern life.  He notes the pervading atmosphere of impending disaster in London—the threat of Muslim terrorist attacks: “There are people around the planet, well-connected and organised, who would like to kill him and his family and friends to make a point. The scale of death contemplated is no longer at issue; there’ll be more deaths on a similar scale, probably in this city. Is he so frightened that he can’t face the fact?”  The events of the last few weeks have demonstrated McEwan’s prescience.

McEwan also comments on other matters as they attract his bird-like, cold vision. Here’s a few aperçus:

--Everyone is thrilled to be together out of the streets—people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other. It they think—and they could be right—that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be sombre in their view.

--The marchers could be right. and he acknowledges the accidental nature of opinion; if he hadn’t met and admired the professor, he might have thought differently, less ambivalently, about the coming war. Opinions are a roll of the dice

--Such prosperity, whole emporia dedicated to cheeses, ribbons, Shaker furniture, is protection of a sort. This commercial wellbeing is robust and will defend itself to the last. It isn’t rationalism that will overcome the religious zealots, but ordinary shopping and all it entails—jobs for a start, and peace, and some commitment to realisable pleasures, the promise of appetites sated in this world, not the next. Rather shop than pray.

--But can anyone really know the sign, the tell of an honest man? There’s been some good work on this very question. Perowne has read Paul Ekman on the subject. In the smile of a self-conscious liar certain muscle groups in the face are not activated. They only come to life as the expression of genuine feeling. The smile of a deceiver if flawed, insufficient. But can we see these muscles resting there inert when there’s so much local variation in faces, pads of fat, odd concavities, differences of bone structure? Especially difficult when the first and best unconscious move of a dedicated liar is to persuade himself he’s sincere. And once he’s sincere, all deception vanishes.

The thin bones of the plot serve as a clothes line for hanging all of these interesting observations out to dry (more mixed metaphors, I’m on a roll, by gum!).  And there’s much much more where those came from.  He doesn’t care about the thread bare strands of the suspense-thriller plot he half-heartedly (and, ineptly) crafts. Indeed, he imbues his hero, Perowne, with a proud lack of imagination.  Being a neurosurgeon, Perowne is concerned merely with data, the gritty facts that get underneath one’s fingernails.  He has no time for literature.  Anna Karenina and Madama Bovary are nothing more than the “products of steady, workmanlike accumulation.”  Perowne has even less time for magical realism since books in this vein are not tightly tethered to the real, the actual:

A man who attempts to ease the miseries of failing minds by repairing brains is bound to respect the material world, its limits, and what it can sustain—consciousness, no less. It isn’t an article of faith with him, he knows it for a quotidian fact, the mind is what the brain, mere matter, performs. If that’s worthy of awe, it also deserves curiosity; the actual, not the magical, should be the challenge. This reading list persuaded Perowne that the supernatural was the recourse of an insufficient imagination, a dereliction of duty, a childish evasion of the difficulties and wonders of the real, of the demanding re-enactment of the plausible.

Now, it’s quite possible that the author, McEwan, actually believes this twaddle. But, fortunately, unconsciously, McEwan is such a good writer that his work, Saturday, is a magnificent refutation of this theory (I'm with Foucault on killing off the author-who cares what he thinks?).  As I pointed out earlier, it is wildly implausible, full of Dickensian coincidence and improbability.  But we don’t care. The mere bones of the plot are just that, dead, inert bones.  They do not form a rigid carapace forcing the reader to go through the twists and turns of some dead-end labyrinth just to reach a “satisfying” conclusion—whatever the heck that is.  I don’t want to be “satisfied.” I want to be filled with wonder and insight.  Saturday achieves those goals, in spades.

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July  25,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Standing here, as immune to the cold as a marble statue, gazing towards Charlotte Street, towards a foreshortened jumble of facades, scaffolding and pitched roofs, Henry thinks the city is a success, a brilliant invention, a biological masterpiece—millions teeming around the accumulated and layered achievements of the centuries, as though around a coral reef, sleeping, working, entertaining themselves, harmonious for the most part, nearly everyone wanting it to work. And the Perownes’ own corner, a triumph of congruent proportion; the perfect square laid out by Robert Adam enclosing a perfect circle of garden—an eighteenth-century dream bathed and embraced by modernity, by street light from above, and from below by fibre-optic cables, and cool fresh water coursing down pipes, and sewage borne away in an instant of forgetting.
--Saturday by Ian McEwan

Carapace v. Skeleton
I’ve been reading Joyce Carol Oates’ Uncensored: Views & (Re)views, which consists of essays on various literary topics and regurgitated book reviews (some folks just won’t throw anything out).  JCO is probably one of the best book reviewers out there.  But that ain’t no compliment.  She’s a master of what passes for a book review today, which requires a small dollop of insight and a whole mess o’ plot summary.  A good example is her review of The Collected Stories of Richard Yates.  It starts out with a profound insight concerning the central symbols of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature:

The predominant image of nineteenth-century American literature is Herman Melville’s White Whale, Moby Dick, the emblem of nature’s demonism and, for Melville, the “colorless all-color of atheism” from which we shrink in horror: the hunted creature turned hunter, who leads a motley crew of Americans to their deaths in the Atlantic Ocean. The predominant image of twentieth-century American literature has turned out to be a much more diminished emblem of American empire and yearning: the green light burning at the end of Gatsby’s Long Island dock, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s romantic-elegiac The Great Gatsby. Where Moby Dick is an image of grandeur, of the mystery of nature and an elusive God, rendered in Homeric prose, Gatsby’s green light is an image of pathos rendered in a conversational, subtly poetic style. Jay Gatsby, born Gatz, is an American parvenu who has fallen in love with a shallow young socialite whose carelessness and selfishness bring about his death. In Fitzgerald, there is no Homeric heroism; there is neither the solace nor the terror of nature, and anything approaching Ahab’s (and Melville’s) impassioned quarrel with God is unknown. The nineteenth century presumably agonized over belief and agnosticism; the twentieth century seems to have given up metaphysics altogether.

Tha’s nice, wot?  That tight paragraph encapsulates why I think JCO is one of our great living writers.  But then she has to turn professional on us.  That is, she has to give us the obligatory “money shot” for the book review—lots and lots of plot summary.  And just as with pornography, there’s only so many variations that one can go through over and over and over and over and over and over:

The stories are variants upon a single relentless theme, as if unconsciously written to formula. Yates’s unreflective men and women, coming of age in the late years of the Depression and the 1940s, most of them city- or suburb-dwellers, are fated to fail at virtually everything they attempt, from marriage and parenthood to modest careers in business or the “creative arts.”

Yes, JCO, most books are “unconsciously written to formula.”  But please, I beg of you, for the love of Moby Dick, don’t give us eighteen jillion examples illustrating that point.  Unfortunately, that’s what book reviews do, consciously or unconsciously, they give us a plot summary—up to, at least, the sacred point which would “give the plot away.”  As you might have noticed, I don’t care whether I give the plot away or not.  I don’t worship at the holy plot altar.  If a book lives or dies based on the twists and turns of its plot then, in my view, it's dead already.  In other words, a plot should serve as a mere skeleton for something else, not as a carapace.

The bones of a skeleton function as a frame, girders, guide wires, fondue sticks for the good stuff stuck on them.  Their function is to keep the good stuff from becoming too diffuse and sloshing about like bilge at the bottom of a boat (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?).  In other words, no one likes hot cheese splotching their trousers [n.b.: yes, I know it should be “his” not “their,” but you barely noticed the switch, and my guess is within twenty years this non-gendered substitute will become standard English, even though it confuses number].  The literary giants understood this.  But then you have the genre writers, those who dabble in mystery, science fiction, suspense thrillers, automobile-repair manuals—where plot drives everything else.  And, so, too, is the case with many novels written in that sacrosanct script, the holy or holies, psychological realism.  For these books, the plot is not a skeleton, it is a carapace, a hardened outer shell, that keeps everything from sloshing out, but at the expense of keeping everything rigidly in its place, too. There’s no give in the structure, no room for whimsy.  And, as you should know by now, I am the champion of fey whimsy.  Just to annoy you, I’ll give plot summary examples in my next post.

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July  22,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

As he comes away, he remembers the famous thought experiment he learned about long ago in a physics course. A cat, Schrödinger’s cat, hidden from view in a covered box, is either still alive, or has just been killed by a randomly activated hammer hitting a vial of poison. Until the observer lifts the cover from the box and the cat is examined, a quantum wave of probability collapses. None of this has ever made any sense to him at all. No human sense. Surely another example of a problem of reference. He’s heard that even the physicists are abandoning it.
--Saturday by Ian McEwan

[N.B.: This observation is a good example of McEwan’s monomania concerning the need to erase even a hint of metaphysics, as he seems to view certain aspects of quantum mechanics.  Actually, Schrödinger shared McEwan’s unease and used the cat thought-experiment as a way to illustrate his discomfort with certain uncanny aspects of quantum mechanics (Albert Einstein was good friends with Schrödinger and, tragically, wasted the last thirty years of his life trying to disprove quantum mechanics and that “God does not pay dice with the universe.”).  Of course, quantum physicists embraced Schrödinger’s modern parable and continue to do so today, pace McEwan.  For a wonderful fictional treatment of Schrödinger, check out Neil Belton’s A Game with Sharpened Knives.  Oh, you may wonder how I know of this book—I subscribe to the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement (both of which put the New York Review of Books in the shade, in the corner, in time-out, in eternal darkness, etc.).  The book was just published in England, but hasn’t made it yet across the puddle to these provincial backwaters.]

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July  21,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Perowne, born the year before the Suez Crisis, too young for the Cuban missiles, or the construction of the Berlin Wall, or Kennedy’s assassination, remembers being tearful over Aberfan in ‘sixty-six—one hundred and sixteen schoolchildren just like himself, fresh from prayers in school assembly, the day before half-term, buried under a river of mud. This was when he first suspected that the kindly child-loving God extolled by his headmistress might not exist. As it turned out, most major world events suggested the same. But for Theo’s sincerely godless generation, the question hasn’t come up. No one in his bright, plate-glass, forward-looking school ever asked him to pray, or sing an impenetrable cheery hymn. There’s not entity for him to doubt. His initiation, in front of the TV, before the dissolving towers, was intense but he adapted quickly. These days he scans the papers for fresh developments the way he might a listings magazine. As long as there’s nothing new, his mind is free. International terror, security cordons, preparations for war—these represent the steady state, the weather. Emerging into adult consciousness, this is the world he finds.
--Saturday by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s Saturday—The Modern Fairy Tale, Part IV
I believe I last left you with Grandpa Grammaticus bleeding from a broken nose, wife Rosalind (who, by the bye, shares the same moniker with the banished duke’s daughter from Shakespeare’s As You Like It; oh, and one of the moons of Uranus —please, no sniggering) breathing heavily as she’s being held captive at French-cutlery knife-point and the male Perownes cowed but not beaten, while daughter Daisy is standing nekkid before two anthropoid thugs, the simian Baxter and his horse-faced companion, Nigel.  Although these two animal-like villains were first introduced into the story as they exited from a strip bar cleverly titled, “The Peppermint Rhino,” our reliable narrator now assures us that they are sexually inexperienced and embarrassed that, once Daisy dispenses with her knickers, it becomes painfully apparent that her concavities have become convexities and she is, indeed, preggers.  Ape-man Baxter, befuddled by this turn of events, tries to hide his discomfiture by pointing at Daisy’s book—she is a fine poet, don’t cha know—and forces her to read one of her scribblings.

Now, Daisy is in a bit of a tight spot, here, so to speak.  Her book is full of erotic love poetry—it’s called My Saucy Bark, fer cryin’ out loud—and given her state of dishabille, it probably wouldn’t be too wise to further inflame the desires of our two barnyard companions.  But Grandpa Grammaticus, the sly dog, cues her to recite one of the famous poems he made her remember in childhood, Arnold’s Dover Beach.  She does so, twice; and thanks to the miraculous power of these dulcet tones of verse, escapes from her predicament.  Although not exactly pinpointed in the book, I’m sure our good secularist McEwan thought it was this verse in particular—

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

--which caused the Beastie Baxter to swoon into a mood change brought on from his Huntingdon’s disease:

It’s hard to tell, for his face is never still, but Baxter appears suddenly elated. His right hand has moved away from Rosalind’s shoulder and the knife is already back in his pocket. His gaze remains on Daisy. The relief she feels she manages to transform, by a feat of self-control and dissembling, into a look of neutrality, betrayed only by a trembling in her lower lip as she returns the stare. Her arms hang defencelessly at her sides, the book dangles between her fingers. Grammaticus grips Rosalind’s hand. The disgust which Nigel listened to the poem a second time has only just faded from his face. He says to Baxter, “I’ll take the knife while you do the business.”
Henry worries that a prompt from Nigel, a reminder of the purpose of the visit, could effect another mood swing, a reversion.
But Baxter has broken his silence and is saying excitedly, “You wrote that. You wrote that.”
It’s a statement, not a question. Daisy stares at him, waiting.
He says again, “You wrote that.” And then, hurriedly, “It’s beautiful. You know that, don’t you. It’s beautiful. And you wrote it.”

And with that, the soothed beast Baxter is soon coaxed upstairs, and then thumped down them where he busts his noggin but is subsequently saved by Pappa Perowne—he is a brilliant neurosurgeon, don’t cha know—with a stitch in time which saves crime.

Now, McEwan is a bit troubled that this mood swing scene seems a bit, well, forced.  So he explains, and explains, and explains, and explains again that, see, well, with Huntingdon’s disease, this sort of thing could happen, really, it could, would I lie to you?  Unfortunately for McEwan, if he is trying to write serious fiction, it doesn’t matter.  The Huntingdon’s disease turns man into beast—thereby rendering Baxter uninteresting from the point of view of serious fiction which is all about such tiresome matters as plausibility and verisimilitude, etc., etc., ad nauseum.  Baxter’s beastly transformation is reaffirmed on the last page of Saturday by having Perowne resolve that Baxter should not be held accountable for his crimes—after all, with the Huntingdon’s disease, he’s not really responsible for his actions.  In other words, Baxter is now a beastly prole not deserving of the basic respect accorded to those who are fully human.  Clearly, we are either in the realm of fairy tale or in a very dark place where I prefer not to linger.

But I choose that we are in the realm of fairy tale.  McEwan’s resolution is similar to Red Riding Hood, with the Woodsman busting through the door and chopping up the wolf in order to free Grandma from its innards.  The wolf is not worthy of a trial or due process—just the axe.  The same is true for Baxter whose head is already on the chopping block (in more ways than one).  That’s a fine ending for a fairy tale.

Oh, and what of that preachy bit about Dover Beach?  Well, I have said that this is a secular fairy tale.  McEwan had to include the reading of that particular poem as the climax of the novel because he fervently believes, as surely as any hide-bound sectarian, that God cannot, must not, shall not, exist.  Indeed, to recite the anti-God creed of Dover Beach will, in and of itself, work magic, work miracles.  To affirm the recession of God will cause the miracle of a beast to withdraw its fangs, to retract its claws, to calm its hot blood.  Further, the beast will enter an ecstatic, a holy, state.  That beatific vision McEwan would not, could not, give up.  And why should he?  Our literature is full of beautiful miracle stories.  This just happens to be an inversion of one.

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July  20,  2005

Patrick:  Ian McEwan’s Saturday—The Modern Fairy Tale, Part III
So, exactly what kind of fairy tale is Ian McEwan’s Saturday?  As I alluded to earlier, I believe it is a modern secular fairy tale, with the moral that, even without the presence of some kind of divine, all-seeing, all-protective being, there still can be “some kind of grandeur” in this secular life.  I’ll discuss in more depth later exactly how McEwan tries to flesh out this moral (certainly, he thinks he’s writing serious fiction and not a fairy tale, but let’s ignore the author for the nonce, shall we).

I also think, though, that there is a much darker fairy tale that is being updated by McEwan—although albeit unconsciously.  Saturday is, at least in broad brushstrokes, a disturbing recapitulation of the French fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast.  This tale is one of those primal stories that has elements of myth, hence the reason that it blossoms forth in the most unlikeliest of places such as McEwan’s stony soil.  I’ll use as my text here, Cocteau’s wonderful film of the fairy tale, La Belle et la Bête.  The girders framing this story concern Beauty’s father who, unwittingly, shows disrespect for the beast by picking a rose in the Beast’s garden. The father wishes to bestow the rose as a gift to his loving daughter.  The Beast threatens to kill the father, but the two enter into a contract whereby the daughter will take the father’s place and agree to live with the Beast.  Beauty beguiles the Beast, who becomes a handsome prince.  And everyone lives happily ever after.

Our hapless father, Henry Perowne, at the beginning of his Saturday, gets his car snarled up in the beginnings of the giant London protest concerning the looming Iraq war.  A helpful bobbie waives him through which leads to a side-swipe with the Beast’s red beemer.  Here, in a dark twist on the French fairy tale, the Beast, Baxter, has the outward appearance of a man (with some beastly characteristics), but within, due to Huntington’s Disease, is actually more animal than man.  Here’s McEwan’s less-than-charitable introductory description of Baxter:

He’s a fidgety, small-faced young man with thick eyebrows and dark brown hair razored close to the skull. The mouth is set bulbously, with the smoothly shaved shadow of a strong beard adding to the effect of a muzzle. The general simian air is compounded by sloping shoulders, and the built-up trapezoids suggests time in the gym, compensating for the height perhaps.

Oh, if you’re curious, Baxter has large hands, given his height.  Baxter is a “short man—five foot five or six perhaps.”  And so, McEwan writes off perhaps ninety percent of the world’s population as “short.”  This casual arrogance extends to the climactic scene where our simian beast, Baxter, follows Perowne home and confronts Perowne’s loving family in their modest, 7000-foot hovel in Kensington. Baxter then forces Perowne’s daughter, Daisy, to strip naked in front of the family after popping Grandpa Grammaticus in the nose and holding a knife to the throat of Mrs. Rosalind Perowne.  It then becomes obvious that Daisy, unbeknownst to Perowne, is pregnant.  Baxter, at least as surmised by Perowne, is a bit flustered:

"Well, well. Look at that!” Baxter says suddenly. He’s pointing with his free hand across the table at Daisy’s book. He could be concealing his own confusion or unease at the sight of a pregnant woman, or looking for ways to extend the humiliation. These two young men are immature, probably without much sexual experience. Daisy’s condition embarrasses them. Perhaps it disgusts them. It’s a hope. Baxter has forced matters this far, and he doesn’t know what to do.

First, I’d just like to point out here that this has to be one of the most hopeless examples of inadequate motivation I’ve ever come across if Saturday is meant to be taken seriously as “serious” fiction—and not as a fairy tale (it works fine for that). McEwan’s problem here, probably, is that he writes screenplays; and you could probably pull off this little bit of sleight-of-hand on the big screen.  But in the cold light of day on the cold, unforgiving page, no one will believe that a hood (who, for some reason, is sexually inexperienced? Har-dee-har-har) when confronted by an attractive naked woman—albeit a pregnant one—who he has ordered to strip would first be embarrassed and then want to cover up that embarrassment by pointing to a book, of all things.  People who do not read do not see books.  Books simply do not exist for them.  They might notice the gameboy, the ipod, the screech-box.  But a book? It is to laugh.

Anyhow, the ridiculousness of the scene has just started—unless, as I wish it to be, this is really a re-make of La Belle et la Bête.  Let us leave this post now, with visions of Cocteau dancing in our heads as Jean Marais and Josette Day swirl through a ballroom illuminated from the candelabra held by disembodied arms. Good night sweet princes and princesses.

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July  18,  2005

Kathryn: Lagniappe

Speech Alone, by Jean Follain
translated by W. S. Merwin

It happens that one pronounces 
a few words just for oneself
alone on this strange earth
then the small white flower
the pebble like all those that went before
the sprig of stubble
find themselves re-united 
at the foot of the gate
which one opens slowly
to enter the house of clay
while chairs, table, cupboard, 
blaze in a sun of glory.

David Foster Wallace's Kenyon College 2005 commencement address
This excellent speech was transcribed by an observer and can be viewed here.

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July  16,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Dreams can have a curiously vivid quality which is often lacking in waking impressions. In them we have one experience at a time in a very concentrated form, and, since the critical self is not at work, the effect is more powerful and more haunting than most effects when we are awake. If we remember dreams at all, we remember them very clearly, even though by rational standards they are quite absurd and have no direct relation to our waking life. They have, too, a power of stirring elementary emotions, such as fear and desire, in a very direct way, though we do not at the time ask why this happens or understand it, but accept it without question as a fact. It is enough that the images of dreams are so penetrated with emotional significance that they make a single and absorbing impression.
--The Romantic Imagination by C. M. Bowra

Ismail Kadare: The Literary Shostakovich?

Shostakovich, the great Russian symphonist--possibly the last great symphonist (we'll need to wait and see)--has been accused of collaborating with the sinister Stalin dictatorship.  Towards this end, little, elfin critics, pore over Shostakovich's symphonic scores, trying to discern the totalitarian tendencies of his major movements (hmmm, that sounds a little too brassy, just what old, Uncle Joe would have liked).  Conversely, other, little, elfin critics defend the scores as ironic paeans to freedom and liberty under the iron grip of a loathsome, totalitarian regime.  I understand the motivations of these armies of leprechauns, battling each other blarney and stone, but the whole exercise seems a bit pointless.  Major chords are major chords, minor minor, and one does not have more overt--or ironic--totalitarian tendencies than my preference for hot biscuits and gravy.  If you want more gooey, viscous, Shostakovichian gravy, though, go here.

Why am I blathering on about Shostakovich, biscuits and gravy (besides the fact I'm hungry)?  Well, the latest issue of the Spectator has an article entitled, "Literary Courtesan," accusing Ismail Kadare of collaborating with the odious brute, Evner Hoxha, who squeezed Albania through his iron fingers like hot butter in a manner that left Stalin panting and all goose-pimply.  Go here for the creepy memoirs of Hoxha's son, who makes the bizarre claim, "[h]e was a genuine democrat--never a dictator!"  Wait, what is that whirring sound I hear?  Is that Foucault spinning in his grave--no, no, that's just him chuckling.  Sorry, my hearing's not too good.   I believe that whirring sound is emanating from the grave of George Orwell.  Yes, yes, he keeps mumbling something about B-Vocabulary

In any event, the Spectator article does not challenge the notion, expressed here, that Kadare is a great writer.  Rather, it attacks Kadare's political bona fides.  I have no idea how much truth there is to this claim.  Certainly, no one in the West can appreciate the repressive regime of Hoxha's Albania.  I know not if the bell tolls for Shostakovich--or for Kadare.  Typically, though, just like with its people, the sacrifices art must make to a dictatorship renders the works sterile and inert.  The works of these two men do not strike me as having succumbed to this disease.  But who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

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July  15,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe
A distinguished Scandinavian, whom I met later, was so warm an upholder of this humanitarianism that he said, with shining eyes as one who beholds a vision, “We may yet have a black Pope.” In a spirit of disgraceful compromise, I suggested meekly that (if not quite ready for that) I should be delighted to see a black Cardinal. I was conscious of some imperial bust of black marble with a red robe, and wondered if there is something prophetic or significant in our fancies. Then I remembered the great King who came to Bethlehem, heavy with purple and crimson with a face like night; and I was ashamed.
--The Resurrection of Rome by G. K. Chesterton

Ian McEwan’s Saturday—The Modern Fairy Tale, Part II
Okay, so the internationally acclaimed poet grandpa for the Perowne family happens to be surnamed Grammaticus.  So what?  Using ridiculous surnames has a long and honorable pedigree.  Sterne referred to Tristram Shandy's delivering physician as Dr. Slop.  Heck, even Henry James was not above such foolishness, as evidenced by he naming the two conflicting characters in The Bostonians, Miss. Chancellor and Basil Ransom.  Yes, yes, but I’m just getting started.

The Perowne family live in a fairy castle on the lake—errr, in a 7,000-foot-plus house in a square in Kensington by Hyde Park [n.b.: it’s curious that McEwan mentions the square footage of the house, particularly given that he has his Saint Perowne do so in a self-deprecating aside, one wonders if McEwan’s own house is in Kensington and is this large, thus generating some ritualistic non-guilt guilt (there’s a GKC paradox for you, to be discussed in another post) for our author]—and have two adoring children.  Indeed, these children are straight out of Hans Christian Andersen’s central casting.

The daughter, Daisy, is, like her grandpa Grammaticus, a poet who has won the Newdigate Prize, along with such luminaries as Matthew Arnold and Oscar Wilde. Here’s our first description of Daisy:

Sensuous, intellectual Daisy, small-boned, pale and correct. What other postgraduate aspiring poet wears short-skirted business suits and fresh white blouses, and rarely drinks and does her best work before 9 a.m.? His little girl, slipping away from him into efficient Parisian womanhood, is expecting her first volume of poem to be published in May. And not by some hand-cranked press, but a venerable institution in Queen Square, . . . .”

What other poet, one may ask?  Why, one that’s in a fairy tale, of course.  Even the young Jorie Graham had to live a bit of a hard-scrabble existence before ascending the throne of poetrydom.  But not our Daisy.  Of course, as McEwan keeps reminding us, as he does at the start of the very next chapter (and repeatedly throughout the book if we’re too thick-headed to get the moral of the fairy tale), and in italics, no less: “There is grandeur in this view of life.”  Yes, indeedy there is, if you stack the deck so egregiously in your favor.  Having all the aces up your sleeves does not make you a masterful poker player. But let’s move on to the biggest joker of them all.

That joker would be Henry Perowne’s son, Theo, up-and-coming, soon-to-be-internationally-acclaimed, blues guiter player.  Here, he is, the Granola Delta Blues and Blackberries Player:

One who dresses, with a certain irony, in the style of the bohemian fifties, who won’t read books or let himself be persuaded to stay on at school, who’s rarely out of bed before lunchtime, whose passion is for mastery in all the nuances of the tradition, Delta, Chicago, Mississippi, for certain licks that contain for him the key to all mysteries, and for the success of his band, New Blue Rider [n.b.: if you don’t get the reference, go here, and then snigger a bunch]. He has an enlarged version of his mother’s face and soft eyes, not green though, but dark brown—the proverbial almonds, with a faint and exotic slant. He has his mother’s wide open good-willed look—and a stronger more compact variant on his father’s big-boned lankiness. Usefully for his line of work, he’s also got the hands. In the confined, gossipy world of British blues, Theo is spoken of as a man of promise, already mature in his grasp of the idiom, who might even one day walk with the gods, the British gods that is—Alexis Korner, John Mayall, Eric Clapton. Someone has written somewhere that Theo Perowne plays like an angel.

What, Theo is not God?—oh wait, that’s Eric Clapton.  Sorry, I’ve gotten my notes mixed up.  See, that’s not completely unbelievable.  McEwan didn’t say Theo was the greatest blues guitarist ever, just the most promising up-and-coming one in Britain.  Now this is particularly hard for me to swallow having been born and raised in the Austin, Texas area where Stevie Ray Vaughan is from.  Now there was a great blues player.  But Stevie Ray Vaughan had something Theo never could get—and it’s the absence of a 7,000-plus-square-foot house on a Kensington Square with a neurosurgeon father and a brilliant media lawyer mother.  They ain’t called the “Blues” for nothing.

McEwan, though, just thinks everything is an idiom, and if you study hard enough, you can become a master—if not the master—of that idiom. The blues, poetry, art, music: it’s all just a matter of technique. There's no messy emotional involvement or that little something referred to disparagingly as "life."  In my mind, this is one of the great heresies of the modern era.  It produces ridiculous scenes like this one where daddy Perowne goes to a rehearsal by his Blues Angel son:

Something is swelling, or lightening in him as Theo’s notes rise, and on the second turnaround lift into a higher register and begin to soar. This is what the boys have been working on, and they want him to hear it, and he’s touched. He’s catching on to the idea, to the momentum of their exuberance and expertise. At the same time he discovers that the song is not the usual pattern of a twelve-bar blues. There’s a middle section with an unworldly melody that rises and falls in semitones. Chas leans into his microphone to sing with Theo, in a close, strange harmony:
                    Baby, you can choose despair,
                    Or you can be happy if you dare.
                    So let me take you there,
                    My city square, city square.

There’s a lot of words to describe this song and its sentiment—but the blues ain’t one of them.  It does remind me of a number of other colors: rose quartz, green meadow, talc pink, eggshell blue or yellow glow.  Just go to your local Gap clothier and pick out your own metaphors.  And while you’re there, see if you can pick up a copy of Saturday.

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July  14,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

It is the glory of the great Gothic and the best Romanesque that no liveliness of detail ever makes us forget that the house of God is still a house, and a house made of stone. I agree that the Baroque does not do this; it is rather the work of a magician drawing pictures in the air. He sweeps up his hand and makes the curve of a cloud, he cleaves it and lets forth a shaft of sun. It is not real cloud or real sun, and does not pretend to be; but it does, as it were, pretend to pretend. It is theatrical; but a theatrical performance is not a falsehood, for it does not profess to be a fact. Still, there is a difference; it does not really look like cloud or sunshine, but then it does not really look like plaster or timber. It does not really look like what it really is. That does, I think, mean a deep and real separation from the Stone House or the Stone Man. . . . But what does it matter, so long as the child is pleased?
--The Resurrection of Rome by G. K. Chesterton

[N.B.: Although these remarks concern the continuing misunderstood nature of Baroque art—and are quite apt to it—I think they also serve to illuminate the misunderstood nature of creative “nonfiction” such as Strachey’s Eminent Victorians.  “Serious” historians miss the point by arguing he’s not one of them.  He would gratefully agree.  He is doing something that is at the same time “more” and “less” than “serious” history. He is creating his own, idiosyncratic view of history. But what does it matter, so long as the child is pleased?  This is true in spades for Foucault’s works, Madness and Civilization and The Order of Things, where he mixes serious historical research with a big dollop of fiction.  Foucault was simply the French Strachey.]

Ian McEwan’s Saturday—The Modern Fairy Tale
Kathryn used to chide me for turning my nose up at the avant garde—nouveau riche—philosophes francais, those fellows dressed all in black turtlenecks from toes to top (and usually a shiny, bald top, at that).  Their names ring out like particularly obscure railway stops in Langeduoc: Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and, on the splinter line, Gilles Deleuze.  But they did have a general, if somewhat woolly, fuzzy and overbaked point: the “text” of a book could, fruitfully, every once in a while, with the appearance of a blue moon and when an idea is sickled o’er with the pale cast of thought, be interpreted in a fresh way by a perceptive reader in a manner not intended by the author.  Of course, childish sycophants (e.g., American academics) ran away with this notion—as they do with everything else such as snips and snails and puppy dog tales—and tried to come up with outlandish “interpretations” of any “text” to suit their particular puerile notions.  But don’t let the feverish outpourings of this diseased class cast complete obliquity upon the basic notion itself (although I still, in the main, agree with certain polemical screeds concerning the basic value of our French intellectual forefathers).  Sometimes it is enlightening to look at a book from an angle not intended by the author.  And I think that’s particularly true for Ian McEwan’s Saturday.

Yes, yes, Saturday has received almost uniformly glowing reviews.  But I think that’s a function of needing to read the book from that different angle.  The book concerns a day in the life of one Henry Perowne (a thinly disguised Ian McEwan, at least in sensibility), brilliant London neurosurgeon by day—and night—and the rest of the time caring family man, father, husband, lover, cook and squash player. Perowne is a modern saint who does not sin—but he is a saint of a paradoxical cast (hat tip to G. K. Chesterton).  He is a secularist saint.  And Saturday is a modern secularist fairy tale.  As serious realist fiction, however, it is an abysmal failure.

First, though, I don’t care all that much for realist fiction.  I am more the devotee of the fairy tale.  I think the genre is able to speak to deeper truths than can be revealed by the surface aspects depicted by the realistic novel.  Sure, in Saturday, you get a fascinating tour of the nitty-gritty involved in the carving and paring and prodding and picking (and, for all I know, pickling) of the patient’s brain under the giant, grizzled fingers of Dr. Perowne.  Very interesting stuff.  This, though, is just a “by the way,” a little sop for the jaded reader as McEwan embarks on his fool’s errand to show that with respect to the secular, “[t]here’s grandeur in this view of life.”  That’s an admirable moral for a fairy tale.  But McEwan’s own story undercuts that moral if his work is meant to be taken as an example of serious, realistic fiction.

Why, is that?  How ‘bout that Perowne’s father-in-law is surnamed Grammaticus, no doubt an homage to Saxo Grammaticus, the Twelfth-Century Danish historian whose books were the basis for Shakespeare’s Hamlet and all sorts of other British myths.  By the bye, Grammaticus is also referred to in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy:

It has often come into my head, that this post could be no other than that of the king's chief Jester;—and that Hamlet's Yorick, in our Shakespeare, many of whose plays, you know, are founded upon authenticated facts, was certainly the very man.
I have not the time to look into Saxo-Grammaticus's Danish history, to know the certainty of this;—but if you have leisure, and can easily get at the book, you may do it full as well yourself.

It goes without saying that Grandpa Grammaticus is a famous poet who drinks too much and is cranky in a whimsical sort of way.  Would even Dickens quail at the use of such a name and stereotype?  Well, I do not have the leisure to continue in this vein.  But I promise more to come.  Like a good pedant, I am starting with the small—some may say, the trifling—and building up to the monumentally ludicrous (hint: that would be Perowne’s brilliant and beautiful poet daughter, while stark naked, deterring two would-be rapists by reciting, twice, Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach—and to think we’ve been recommending pepper spray all this time!).

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July  11,  2005

Kathryn: Lagniappe

"‘I am speaking for the majority of us who are not artists and who need protection from artists, whose the time the artists insist on passing for us. We get along quite well with our sleeping and eating and procreating, if you artists only let us alone. But you accursed who are not satisfied with the world as it is and so must try to rebuild the very floor you are standing on, you keep on talking and shouting and gesturing at us until you get us all fidgety and alarmed. So I believe that if art served any purpose at all, it would at least keep the artists themselves occupied.’"
--from William Faulkner’s Mosquitoes

William Faulkner's Mosquitoes
At my friend Marcus’s suggestion, I read Faulkner’s second novel, Mosquitoes. It was a good suggestion for me; I wrote an honors thesis on Faulkner’s works and had read most of his novels, but not this one. And I’m from New Orleans, the story’s setting and the place where Faulkner lived* while he worked on the novel.

As Edwin T. Arnold points out in Marcus’s copy of Annotations to William Faulkner’s Mosquitoes, the novel is a Jazz Age satire of New Orleans’ artistic community—a ship-of-fools tale set largely aboard a yacht on Lake Pontchartrain--and also a response to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The book is witty and wry. Some of the most quotable material comes from the characters’ discussions of art (“Art means anything consciously done well”; “It’s only in books that people must function according to arbitrary rules of conduct and probability; it’s only in books that events must never flout credibility”; “A book is the writer’s secret life, the dark twin of a man”).

Mosquitoes contains only occasional exaltations or lapses (depending on your taste) into high Faulknerian style. Abnegant swamps, “hot stars like wilted gardenias,” etc. Now, somebody ought to have taken the word implacable away from Faulkner and refused to give it back until the book was done, but, well, I suppose we can make the best of it and try to convince the folks running the Faux Faulkner contest to establish a new drinking game or something.

At any rate, it’s a sharp, lively narrative and well worth a read—especially for anyone interested in Faulkner’s early style.

*He lived in a house on Pirate’s Alley, now known as Faulkner House, where Faulkner was, apparently, living for a short while, sleeping on the sofa of a friend of his friend Sherwood Anderson.

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July  10,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Before beginning this, the ten thousandth attempt at telling the most tremendous of all travellers’ tales, it will be well to start with an apology. When it was first suggested to me that I should go to Rome and in some sense report upon the new transformations in that very old transformation-scene, I explained frankly that I am a very bad reporter; just as I am a very bad reviewer. And this is not in the least because I despise reporting or reviewing as dull; but because I find too much that is interesting in them and possess too little of the most interesting qualities they require: the qualities of selection and concentration. I am a bad reporter because everything seems to me worth reporting; and a bad reviewer because every sentence in every book suggests a separate essay. I can honestly say, as a general impression of things, that I never find anything dull, but a book describing the discovery that nothing is dull might be very dull indeed.
--The Resurrection of Rome by G. K. Chesterton

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July  10,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

According to signs that he had been studying for some time, the lineaments of a new order that would carry the world many centuries forward had faintly, ever so faintly, begun to appear in this part of Europe. These signs included the opening of new banks in Durrës, growing numbers of Jewish and Italian intermediaries dealing in twenty-seven different kinds of coin, and the almost universal acceptance of the Venetian ducat as a form of international currency. There was also the increasingly heavy traffic of merchant caravans, the organization of trade fairs, and especially (Oh Lord! How he emphasized that word “especially”), especially the construction of roads and stone bridges. And all this movement, he said, was a sign simultaneously of life and death, of the birth of a new world and the death of the old.
--The Three-Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadare

How to Read a Book

Today's New York Times Book Review has a delightful back-page essay by Ruth Franklin concerning a short book written by Steen Leveen, the chief executive of Levenger's.  For those not familiar with Levenger's, it's a catalog that apparently is inflicted at regular intervals on any subscriber to the New York Review of Books. This catalog features "must have" accessories for book readers such as bookweights and bookstand holders (who knew reading could be so complicated?).  For a peek at its wares, go here.   I must admit I have not purchased anything from the catalog for the good reason expressed by Ms. Franklin:  "Reading requires remarkably little in the way of paraphernalia: a book, a source of light and maybe a pair of glasses. So what, other than our propensity for buying things we don't need, explains the success of the Levenger catalog?"  Her answer:  there's a lot more folks who treat books as fetish objects than as instruments for reading.  One need merely to travel to the closest cinema to see the likes of the latest "serious" (scare quotes definitely intended) Tom Cruise or  Julia Roberts movie where they play a furrow-browed "intellectual" (ditto) frolicking about in front of a bookcase spilling out tomes like a veritable bibliomaniac's cornucopia.  It's cool to own books and show them off, but who has time to read them?

Well, Mr. Leveen hopes to rectify this sorry state of affairs with his own book, The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life.  He cheerfully admits, though, "he doesn't do much reading himself, often preferring the efficiency of audio books."  Oh wait, it's going to get much better.  His advice includes such obvious tips as to read more from authors you already like.  Hmmmm, that never would have occurred to me.  He also offers the sensible tip that you shouldn't keep reading a book you don't like; and there's no guilt in putting it down.  I agree with him on that.  His example, though:  Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.  "I found it not enough crime and too much punishment."  A witty bon mot, in a half-witted sort of way.  He continues with the sensible advice to buy books that are recommended by a number of well respected authorities, such as Plutarch's Lives which he found recommended by Louis L'Amour.  One wonders at Danielle Steele's recommendation--Plato's Republic, perhaps (though there's lots of deviant sex (just kidding!), there's probably not enough shopping; one simply had the hardest time tracking down the latest Jimmy Choo sandal even in Athens).

It appears that Mr. Leveen's book may be one of those great naive classic comedies.  I must admit, I'm tempted to buy a copy--or not.  It does spur me, though, to offer a few of my own observations about how to carve time out of a busy schedule for reading.  First, I pass on A. N. Wilson's observation that one should just get in the habit of always having a book at hand and to keep one in the car.  There's more bits of dead time in a day than one might first suppose.  Why not, while waiting in line to catch the next airplane or purchase the groceries, spend that time reading a book as opposed to perusing the latest edition of The National Inquirer

Also, even more importantly, stop watching television.  I don't mean, get rid of your television set.  It's still important as a movie delivery device or to find out when the next patch of bad weather is going to show up at your doorstep.  But don't have regular series you have to watch every week.  Even the best television series pales in comparison with the best books.  Also, don't watch the news.  Newspapers are much more efficient and offer true in-depth coverage.  Television news is insipid and repetitive, focusing on dramatic matters that tend to titillate more than elucidate.  Again, books do a better job of this (except for predicting the weather, so I'll make an exception there for you--although I've found that sticking my head out the door and pointing my chin at a roughly 120-degree angle from my chest also works quite nicely).   There's my tips.  Maybe I'll put them in manuscript form so that soon they could be transcribed on an audiotape for the enjoyment of Mr. Leveen as he drives in to start his busy workday of convincing non-readers why they need to at least look like they read. 

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July  9,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

As we walked along the sandbank, I explained to him that the legends and ballads of these parts mainly dealt with what had most distressed people throughout the ages, the division of mankind into the two great tribes of the living and the dead. The maps and flags of the world bear witness to dozens of states, kingdoms, languages, and peoples, but in fact there are only two peoples, who live in two kingdoms: this world, and the next. In contrast to the petty kingdoms and statelets of our world, these great kingdoms have never touched each other, and this lack of touch has pained most of all the people on this side. No testimony, no message, has so far ever come from the other side. The people on this side, unable to endure this rift, this absence of crossing, have woven ballads against the barrier, imagining its destruction. Thus these ballads mention those in the next world, in other words the dead, crossing to this side temporarily with the permission of their kingdom, for a short time, usually for one day, to redeem a pledge they have left behind or to keep a promise they have made.
--The Three-Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadare

London Bombing: Ian McEwan's Leviathan

I realize there's a world of difference between the instincts, cultural artifacts and notions--Foucault's epistemes if you will--between Texans and Londoners.  Here, the London bombings by terrorists are seen as reprehensible acts that should be met, not just with words, but with deeds.  Once again, the gauntlet has been thrown down, and the failure to pick it up will--after New York, Madrid, Burma, etc., etc., ad nauseum--lead to much, much more of the same.  Our prayers and sense of unity and resolve are with our brothers and sisters across the narrow waters. 

And yet, I read Ian McEwan's opinion column, titled "The Surprise We Expected," on the bombings in yesterday's New York Times where he ends with this:

But once we have counted up our dead, and the numbness turns to anger and grief, we will see that our lives here will be difficult. We have been savagely woken from a pleasant dream. The city will not recover Wednesday's confidence and joy in a very long time. Who will want to travel on the Underground once it has been cleared? How will we sit at our ease in a restaurant, cinema or theater? And we will face again that deal we must constantly make and re-make with the state - how much power must we grant Leviathan, how much freedom will we be asked to trade for our security?

This notion, by the bye, is an expansion on a trope that appears on p. 184 of his new novel, Saturday.  I'm still reading it, and will be highly recommending it in a blog near you.  This is an important--although deeply flawed work--which I think Kathryn and I will be arguing about for some time.  Strap yourself in for lots of blog entries in the near future.  Enough of coming attractions, lets get to Saturday's Leviathan:

Have his anxieties been making a fool of him?  It's part of the new order, this narrowing of mental freedom, of his right to roam.  Not so long ago his thoughts ranged more unpredictably, over a longer list of subjects.  He suspects he's becoming a dupe, the willing, febrile consumer of news fodder, opinion, speculation and of all the crumbs the authorities let fall.  He's a docile citizen, watching Leviathan grow stronger while he creeps under its shadow for protection.  This Russian plane flew right into his insomnia, and he's been only too happy to let the story and every little nervous shift of the daily news process colour his emotional state.  It's an illusion, to believe himself active in the story.  Does he think he's contributing something, watching news programmes, or lying on his back on the sofa on Sunday afternoons, reading more opinion columns of ungrounded certainties, more long articles about what is most surely going to happen next, predictions forgotten as soon as they are read, well before events disprove them?

Please, folks, help me out here.  McEwan lived just a few blocks from the bombings--he personally saw the chaos.  And his concern is that this incident will now be used as an excuse for his government to expand its reach?  Does he still not realize the direness of his situation?  In wartime, of course the government becomes more intrusive, move Leviathan-like.  That's because, come close now so you won't miss this:  THE COUNTRY IS AT WAR AND MUST RESTRICT ITS CITIZENS' LIBERTIES DURING THAT TIME SO THAT ITS CITIZENS' MAY CONTINUE TO ENJOY THEIR LIBERTIES AFTER THE WAR'S (HOPEFULLY) SUCCESSFUL CONCLUSION.  Back during the Blitz, that meant you couldn't turn you headlights on at night so that Goering's bombers wouldn't have a marker for dumping their bombs on you (and your neighbors).

Yes, this is like one of G. K. Chesterton's paradoxes I just made fun of yesterday.  But most of GKC's paradoxes are built on a profound insight, which is that concepts may be viewed at different levels of understanding--that notions such as justice and liberty are "thick" with many different facets, bumps and grooves.  Viewed from one angle they look like a swelling hump, from another, a long nose.  These attributes may seem contradictory until one views the concept as a whole and sees that it is a camel.   Apparently, though, McEwan can see only the nose poking through the tent--but soon enough he'll be confronted by the entire camel.

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July  8,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

He nodded continually and, when I told him that we Albanians, together with the ancient Greeks, are the oldest people in the Balkans, he held his spoon thoughtfully in his hand. We have had our roots here, I continued, since time immemorial. The Slavs, who have recently become so embittered, as often happens with newcomers, arrived from the steppes of the east no more than three or four centuries ago. I knew that I would have to demonstrate to him somehow, and so I talked to him about the Albanian language, and told him that, according to some of our monks, it is contemporary with if not older than Greek, and that this, the monks say, was proved by the words that Greek had borrowed from our tongue.
“And they are not just any words,” I said, “but the names of gods and heroes.”
His eyes sparkled. I told him that the names Zeus, Dhemetra, Tetis, Odhise, and Kaos, according to our monks, stem from the Albanian words, “voice,” dhe, “earth,” det, “sea,” udhë, “journey,” and haes, “eater.”
--The Three-Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadare

Style Traps: Gee, Kay’s Chest or Tongue’s Pair O’ Ducks, Part Two
Hmmm, that last post was supposed to be about how G. K. Chesterton, particularly in his later books, tended to rely too much on the paradox as a stylistic tool.  But, I somewhere took a nasty detour and wound up in the bog of Michel Foucault.  Sorry ‘bout that.  Let me see if I can get this lorry righted and tootle off in a more profitable direction.  What were looking for again?  Oh yes, paradox.  Here’s one now:

There is an endless and equal quarrel between the classic and the fantastic. It can always be said that reason and order are better than unreason and anarchy; and answered that there lies beyond our reason a world of wilder and more wonderful mysteries; and answered again that pure harmony is really the same as perfect liberty; and answered yet again that a more perfect liberty would seem to our limited vision imperfect. It is quite true, on the one hand, that the straight limbs of the Greek hero, or even the straight lines of the stiff Egyptian god, may be in truth a still whirlwind of perfect motion and energy. It is true again that there is something is us at once antic and domestic. Something for which a thing is not quite familiar unless it is a little outlandish. Something that is more at home with the goblins than the gods.

Did you get all that?  No?  Well, you better check with Michel Foucault who might be able to explain it all since he championed un-reason, too.  Although, he did so in a strictly un-metaphysical fashion.  The paradox here is that a belief in unreason necessarily leads to metaphysics, even if one is trying to be un-metaphysical.  Do you hear that whirring sound? I believe Foucault is spinning in his grave.  Well, let’s get off the metaphysical express and wander down this idyllic, bucolic byway:

I happen to be so constituted that I can enjoy almost any weather, except what is called glorious weather. But I also have a dim feeling of resentment when this sort of weather is alone accounted glorious. I can understand that the word might not naturally be applied to the condition of climate I happen to enjoy most; which is, broadly speaking, the climate of my own country. It is the sort of cool and brisk grey weather which is felt as appropriate to early winter or very early spring; and the complaint of my ungrateful countrymen merely consists of saying that it is quite as common in summer and appears to last all the year around. But I can quite understand that it costs them an effort to call it glorious. But one season, like one star, differs from another in glory; and I do not admit that the only star is that which we call the sun. Similarly, I know not why even Pagans, in this once Pagan city, should reserve all their worship for Apollo; or forget that there is a planet called Jupiter in the skies or a god called Jupiter on the Capitol.

Now this seems almost perverse.  Yes, yes, GKC has a point, of sorts, that the Pagans were right to worship various gods just as we are right to find congenial various types of weather.  So what?  Well, it’s a fair paradox, guv’nor, that should be enough.  Paradox for paradox’s sake—isn’t that a paradox?  I think I need to lie down for a spell.  Here, have another paradox:

Some of us expected that if the English and the Germans went on admiring each other like this, there would certainly be war. We even endeavoured to introduce a little disagreement and difference, in the hope of keeping the peace. We tried to point out that the Englishman and the Prussian were really rather remote from each other, and might well go their very separate ways. We pointed out, for instance, that even the English weakness, the excessive worship of the gentleman, cut him off from the North German; for the Prussian aristocrat, in the English sense, is not a gentleman at all. He is on principle stiff, stingy and brutal, instead of being genial, generous and patronizing. Thus, we tenderly pointed out, there is a basic distinction even between a nation of snobs and a nation of serfs.

Well, that’s not too patronizing—although that is the characteristic of the Englishman.  But wait, let’s end with Chesterton’s portrait of Mussolini which is many things—nauseating, sycophantic, idolatrous—but certainly not, patronizing:

There is a great deal more fun in him than masks of bronze are supposed to indulge in; he laughs readily and he is not an Italian for nothing. He has the vivacity of gesture; and one or two movements that may on public occasions have a touch of the theatrical, such as the weird power that some actors possess, of making his eyes suddenly shift and shine. It may be natural enough, but I should not complain if it was in a sense oratorical. I know that a dictator must be a demagogue for a time; just as a demagogue must be a dictator for a time. I know that militant and democratic Latins cannot be led by the merely familiar and good-natured smile of the old squire or the constitutional monarch.

Ahhh, that old paradox’s got me in its spell: even the demagogue and the dictator have to change roles from time to time.  But at least they have a shift and shine in their eyes as they do it.  When next you bump into him, try to give a crooked smirk to the old squire for me, chappie.

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July  7,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“Don’t you know?” he said. “It was a terrible thing, which they solemnly celebrate every year.”
Brockhardt told me briefly about the Byzantine emperor’s punishment of the defeated Bulgarian army. Fifteen thousand captured Bulgarian soldiers had had their eyes put out. (You know that is a recognized punishment in Byzantium, he said.) Only one hundred and fifty were left with their sight intact, to lead the blind army back to the Bulgarian capitol. Day and night, their faces pitted with black holes, the blind hordes wandered homeward.
--The Three-Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadare

Style Traps: Gee, Kay’s Chest or Tongue’s Pair O’ Ducks
A few weeks ago I finished reading G. K. Chesterton’s Resurrection of Rome, a reverie on Chesterton’s recent journey in 1930 to that ancient capitol.  As a quirk of his generation of writers—that being Late Victorian/Edwardian—Chesterton evinced an affinity for the paradox.  He’s in good company, here, given that another inveterate practitioner was Oscar Wilde.  Wilde used paradox to point out flaws in the Manichean view of written works having to be divided into two categories: fiction and nonfiction (we still live with this Manichean divide today, although, as I have argued, it is a false dichotomy—I admit, I have some scary company here, such as Michel Foucault as set forth in his great works, Madness and Civilization and The Order of Things).  Wilde’s encapsulation of his views was probably best expressed in his fine essay, The Decay of Lying.  The entire essay is basically an exercise in paradox as Wilde tries to show that great literature—which I would classify as both fiction and nonfiction—cannot exist without a strong imaginative element (which Wilde terms “lying”). 

As an occasional rhetorical flourish, paradox can be an effective writing tool.  But although it can be honed to a razor’s edge, the base metal of paradox is as soft as lead and dulls quickly with repeated use.  Alas, there’s no paradox sharpener. Chesterton never realized this.  Like the schoolboy with his pencil nub, Chesterton thought if you just press down harder, one could get more use from the dulled instrument.

And sometimes, Chesterton did.  Resurrection of Rome, even though a late work of Chesterton’s which suffers from numerous flaws—not the least of which is an unabashed admiration for Mussolini (to be fair, this was published in 1930, right after Mussolini signed the Lateran Agreements with the Catholic Church creating the sovereign state of the Vatican but before Mussolini removed his genial mask with the barbaric invasion of Ethiopia)—it does contain a few wonderful lyrical passages involving the paradox:

There is a sense in which the highest object of historical learning is to unlearn history. At least, it is the object to unthink it or unimagine it. The point is what is called a paradox; but it is one well worth pointing out. We do not realize what the past has been until we also realize what it might have been. We are merely imprisoned and narrowed by the past, so long as we think that it must have been. For that is only the provincial presumption that it must have been what it was because it had to produce what it did; that is, our own precious and priceless selves. It is difficult for us to believe that the huge human thing called history might actually have taken another turn and done without us. The most pathetic part of it is that it would never have known what it had lost. Mr. Brown of Brixton has been taught to call himself the Heir of All the Ages; but, as a mere matter of detail, the Ages never made any last will and testament actually mentioning Mr. Brown. There is far more philosophy, to my mind, in what seems to some the fantastic speculations of the mediaeval Schoolmen, when they argue for pages about what would have happened to the plants or the planets if Adam had never eaten the apple. They at least had the immense and mighty imagination of which I speak; they could unthink the past.

This odd notion expressed by Chesterton that history is irredeemably contingent is a very modern one—most recently championed by the British historian, Niall Ferguson, in his quirky work, Virtual History.  Most historians still view history as irredeemably non-contingent; predestined if one will (a very Calvinistic notion). There are a few others that share Chesteron’s profound distrust of the notion that history is somehow based on the unfolding of a great, progressive, Whig-ish plan (although, for Chesterton, this is because history is tied to eschatology and the Second Coming).  None other than Michel Foucault held the same view in his decisive rejection of Marxism since it deemed a pollyannaish ending of history in the delightful proletarian utopia where tractors gambol across fields of newly mown wheat before repairing to the shed for a four-hour lecture on dialectical crop rotation.  Foucault also believed, as expressed in Madness and Civilization, that the Renaissance had cut mankind off from a vital and fervid area of thought that did not involve rationality—from Dionysian discourse (yep, Foucault worshipped at the Nietzschean altar).  In other words, he, too, thought there was more imagination in a Medieval Churchman than in a Modern Dialectician.  Foucault and Chesterton; now that’s some strange bedfellows.

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July  6,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

He was resigned now to never being a really popular author, or producing a ‘best seller’, like poor Du Maurier. Something had happened in the culture of the English-speaking world in the last few decades, some huge seismic shift caused by a number of different converging forces—the spread and thinning of literacy, the levelling effect of democracy, the rampant energy of capitalism, the distortion of values by journalism and advertising—which made it impossible for a practitioner of the art of fiction to achieve both excellence and popularity, as Scott and Balzac, Dickens and George Eliot, had done in their prime. The best one could hope for was sufficient support from discriminating readers to carry on with the endless quest for aesthetic perfection.
--Author, Author by David Lodge

[N.B.: Lodge doesn’t seem too bitter here—although given the reception he received for this novel, one might begrudge him a few rants against the storm of popular opinion, it passed him by with nary a drop.]

More Foetry Press

Skipping across the Big Pond, I find that The Guardian has an article discussing the latest poetry-foetry contretemps in its usual cheeky style.  The article includes an interesting back story about the plucky Jorie Graham--her rise to poetic stardom seems almost like something out of Dickens.  Almost--if one's taste in heroes leans towards the Gradgrindian sort.

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July 4,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

There was something peculiarly chilling about the idea of an adult couple corrupting the innocence of two young children, and then coming back from beyond the grave to claim their souls, but he had instinctively known that to underline the evil, to make it luridly explicit, would diminish its effect. The tale ‘worked’ because the nature of the corruption was never specified, and the supernatural manifestations were domesticated to its idyllic country house setting—they might even by (as the down-to-earth housekeeper Mrs Grose hinted) the fevered imaginings of the susceptible young governess who was its sole narrator and sole centre of consciousness. As his more perceptive readers recognised, he had contrived that every uncanny incident in the story was capable of two explanations, one natural and one supernatural, and it was the undecidability of the narrative, sustained to the very end, that more than anything else kept them on the rack of suspense. Several wrote to him pleading to be put out of their misery by an authoritative explanation of the ‘true’ nature of the case, requests which he had found elaborately polite ways to evade.
--Author, Author by David Lodge

Mea Culpa, Again

Reviewing Kathryn's post from a couple of days ago put me in mind of Yogi Berra--"it's deja vu all over again."  David Lodge, in Author, Author, makes clear in one passage that in Henry James's most secret communings with his double-secret-probation inner self, James recognizes that he is more attracted to the naked male, not female, form.  So much for "incipiently heterosexual."  Of course, the rest of Kathryn's post I take issue with (nor is that a point up with I shall not put).  I do, however, particularly admire Kathryn's neologism, "dissertationish."  As you might guess, we get along so well because we completely disagree with one another.  Onward and upward.

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July 3,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Suppose one were to apply to prose narrative the method he had used in developing his ideas for plays, namely, the scenario—the detailed scene-by-scene summary of an imagined action? Then one would have a model, as it were, of the novel or tale in a virtual form; one could take the measure of its structure as a whole, assess its unity and symmetry, and make any necessary adjustments, before commencing the process of composition proper. And then, he thought with gathering excitement, might not the dramatic principle itself, of presenting experience scenically—‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ the story, through the confrontation and interaction of the characters—might this not give prose fiction the kind of structural strength and elegance it so often lacked, while the narrative artist remained free to add the priceless resource, denied to the dramatist, of being able to reveal the secret workings of consciousness in all its dense and delicate detail?
--Author, Author by David Lodge

[N.B.: There you go; now you can save your money from paying tuition for creative writing courses.  At the door of such classes should be inscribed the two commandments: Thou shalt show; thou shalt not tell.  And then I saw these bleak words dimly above the gate: Abandon all trope ye who enter here.  The problem with showing is that it invites mediocrity to disguise its fuzzy thinking and foggy generalities in the cloak of lived experience.  Chaos, no matter how fetchingly appointed, is not art.]

He's Across the River and Into the Trees: Shelby Foote is Dead

This has been a sad year for the passing of literary lions such as Saul Bellow and now, the magisterial Southern historian, Shelby Foote, whose trilogy, The Civil War: A Narrative, has a secure place in the pantheon of great works of narrative history along with Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World and Steven Runciman's A History of the Crusades.  There is a very moving paean to Foote in today's New York Times.  He became something of a celebrity as a featured presence in Ken Burns's PBS documentary on the Civil War.  But it was this sweeping, almost mythic work, which will assure his place in history.  It will be a long time before such noble grandeur will be unfurled again.

Resquiat in pace

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July 2,  2005

Kathryn: The Master vs. Author, Author

De gustibus and all that, but, to disagree with Patrick, I consider The Master a better novel than Author, Author. Whether one agrees with the theories explored in Toibin's book (that James was a repressed homosexual, that James protected himself from all kinds of intimacies--sexual, familial, social) or in Lodge's (that James was, as Patrick puts it, "incipiently heterosexual" or perhaps a contented asexual or even a self-controlled, low-watt pedophile) is somewhat beside the point, to me. Which book is the better novel? I prefer Toibin's novel for several reasons, including these:

(1) The Master has a better narrative structure. The central conflict of Author, Author is James's unexpressed envy of the success won by his nondescript friend, the inferior novelist George Du Maurier (who wrote Trilby, an absolute phenomenon of a novel now mostly unremembered). In a dissertationish kind of way, the contrast between James and Du Maurier, their works, and their success is somewhat interesting--but not interesting enough to carry a book of nearly 400 pages.

I find more compelling--and far more Jamesian--Toibin's focus on James's many near-misses with not only sexual intimacy (noted by Patrick in previous entries) but, more to the point, emotional intimacy--with his family, Minny Temple, his servants the Smiths and Burgess Noakes, Constance Fenimore Woolson, etc. James's works are primarily about relationships that fail in crucial ways to live up to their inherent promise; Toibin's novel offers us a Jamesian narrative of withheld and renounced intimacies, with James himself at its center.

(2) Author, Author is just not as well written as The Master. I see it as lackluster tribute indeed to employ prose as pedestrian as Lodge's to write about an author for whom style was paramount. Just to throw out a couple of examples: Lodge endlessly calls attention to his use of cliches and stale phrases by dressing them in scare-quotes (e.g., "she obviously like to 'make an entrance,'" "a London choked with a sooty 'pea soup' fog," "his diapprobation of  . . . 'talking shop'"). And he uses a subplot with James's servants to add, um, color, with excruciating bits such as
    "'I had a look at one [of James's novels] once,' says Joan. 'I couldn't make head nor tail of it.'
    'Well, they weren't written for the likes of us,' says Burgess. 'Them books are Literature.'"

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