Thursday, February 16, 2012

Like Cold Smoke

You know Faulkner is lying about having written Sanctuary for quick cash when he uses prose like this:

He walked quietly up the drive, beginning to smell the honeysuckle from the fence. The house was dark, still, as though it were marooned in space by the ebb of all time. The insects had fallen to a low monotonous pitch, everywhere, nowhere, spent, as though the sound were the chemical agony of a world left stark and dying above the tide-edge of a fluid in which it lived and breathed. The moon stood overhead, but without light; the earth lay beneath, without darkness. He opened the door and felt his way into the room and to the light. The voice of the night--insects, whatever it was--had followed him into the house; he knew suddenly that it was the friction of the earth on its axis, approaching that moment when it must decide to turn on or to remain forever still: a motionless ball in cooling space, across which a thick smell of honeysuckle writhed like cold smoke.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Down and Out in Mississippi

In the author's preface to the 1932 edition of Sanctuary, William Faulkner says the book "was deliberately conceived to make money. ... I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought would be the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks and sent it to (Harrison) Smith, who had done The Sound and the Fury and who wrote me immediately, 'Good God, I can't publish this. We'd both be in jail.'"

Faulkner is being untruthful. Almost every word of the above statement is a lie. But as a result of those lies, Sanctuary was long regarded as a throwaway novel, a bit of light work, a sensational story about rape written for quick cash. Critical evaluation of the book has been generally unkind purely because Faulkner publically disparaged it. But you can't believe an author talking about his own work, especially when the author pretends to disown the work. Sanctuary is no pulp fiction dashed off over a weekend or two; apparently the original manuscript was worked over intensely by Faulkner, with more care and attention to detail in his revisions than he gave to any of his other books except Absalom, Absalom!

It's a creepy story with creepy characters and people make bad choices on every page, but that doesn't make it cheap fiction. The prose is amazing and the characters are lively and believable. Sanctuary is a good book, so far. Not perfect (one of Faulkner's devices for ratcheting up the tension is getting on my nerves and I wish he'd cut it out), but pretty darned good. I can feel the end of Act One coming soon; Faulkner might blow it during Act Two, but I doubt it. We'll see.

Why is the girl named Temple? Is that symbolic? Of what? The ruined manor house is a bit obvious. The spring is interesting and brings to mind the discovery of Moses in the rushes, because every time the spring shows up in the narrative, one character is there to do something innocent and is discovered by another character who is not so innocent. There's also a baby in a box. Hmm.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Tokyo versus Mississippi: 2 falls out of 3

So far it's only round one of this contest but Faulkner is seriously putting the hurt on Yoshimoto. Banana may be carried out of the ring on a stretcher.

What in God's name am I talking about? Last week I read Banana Yoshimoto's novella Kitchen because I've encountered little snippets here and there and my pal Davin Malasarn admires the book so it seemed high time I finally read it. This week I'm reading William Faulkner's Sanctuary for the first time. Before the Yoshimoto I read Vladimir Nabokov's novel Invitation to a Beheading. Got all that?

Perhaps reading Kitchen between books by Nabokov and Faulkner was unfair, because the latter writers are amazing prose stylists and Banana is--at least in this translation--a writer of fairly flat, style-free sentences. When the writing takes aim at being imaginative it usually fails, stumbling into cliche or silliness. Nabokov and Faulkner, on the other hand, had rich control over their prose and forged new trails through language. Tonight, maybe, I'll do a compare-and-contrast.

I'm not sure if I'm writing this to express my disappointment in Kitchen, which I really wanted to like but didn't (it's only 150 pages long but it seemed to drag forever and say nothing except hey, you know, stop grieving and get on with things; it also reads like a college student's journal, with self-conscious "profundities" that are really commonplaces), or to express my surprise and delight about Sanctuary which, at only 30-odd pages in, is already deep and layered and beautiful and grotesque and alive in a way the Yoshimoto never managed. Again, I see no reason to compare the books but I end up doing it anyway.

This was supposed to be the year where I read nothing but Chekhov, Nabokov and Shakespeare, but there are just too many other delicacies lying about. Will my next read be Volume 6 of Tales of Chekhov, or will it be something by Camus? I'll know when I get there.

Also, Chapter 8 of the work-in-progress is now underway. It will be a busy chapter, I think. It threatens to be very talky, but I'm battling that threat. I hope I remember that I want to do something with contrasts between being enclosed in dark places and being out in the open under a tremendous sky. Possibly a trip in an aeroplane is neccessary. Possibly.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

In and Out of the Castle with Vladimir

There's a sequence in Nabokov's Invitation To A Beheading where the protagonist, Cincinnatus C., crawls through a tunnel in an attempt to go from a fellow prisoner's cell back to his own, but instead finds a way out of the castle in which he's being held. He scrambles into the early evening light and looks around at the beautiful world, the sky deepening into purple to the west, the river and its bridge hazy and shadowed at the foot of the mountain and, beyond the bridge, the city where Cincinnatus lived unhappily free. It's a very nice, quiet moment in an otherwise frenetic narrative.

I was imagining that Cincinnatus would sit on the mountainside, his back to the oppressive prison tower, and consider his life, possibly living through significant events again and fantasizing about his future as a man escaped from the clutches of a tyrannical government. Naturally there is no place in the world for Cincinnatus and, I imagined, after some time he'd resign himself to his fate and crawl back into the tunnel and find his cell, there to await his execution.

That's not what happens, because this isn't that sort of novel, and Cincinnatus isn't that sort of character. Nabokov's people in this book are all symbols; not one of them has blood or a heart. Invitation to a Beheading is a novel about ideas, not a novel about people. Repressive regimes are horrific farces staged by men who rarely show their true faces, who bend truth to fit the fairy tale of institutional happiness, who claim to own Progress while leading nations into barbarism, &cet; &cet; &cet.; Yes, we know this. And yes, the novel's power lies in showing us this horrific farce, but the lack of people (as opposed to puppets) is leaving me with an empty feeling. So a good book, certainly (and if I had to choose between this and, say, Gulag Archipelago, I'd pick Nabokov nine times out of ten), but Beheading is probably a minor novel. It's no Lolita, that's for sure. Maybe if Nabokov had given Cincinnatus a sense of humor or at least an awareness of irony, I'd be enjoying this more.

Anyway, the book where the prisoner escapes from prison, reflects on his past and supposes his future and then returns to the prison? I might write that one myself, unless I have stolen the premise from someone and just can't remember who.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Red Tophat

or, uncollected thoughts about Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading.

1. Why is the protagonist named Cincinnatus? Is he a noble protector of the republic (which has clearly been lost in the future world of the novel)? Can one be noble when one is trying to hide one's true self? I doubt that. What's in a name? I don't know in this case.

2. Does Nabokov expect us to read the preface? I think he does. If he doesn't think that his novel is informed by the repression in the Soviet Union and the Third Reich, why does he make a point of telling us he wrote Beheading after having experienced some of that repression? VN is disingenuous. Again.

3. Why is the prison cell painted yellow?

4. This novel is a farce, a circus ring full of murderous clowns. Reality, escapist daydreaming and metaphor all merge into one. It's self-contradictory in subtle, important ways. It's sloppy, too. Funny and grim and Kafkaesque though Nabby points out that when he wrote this, he hadn't as yet read any Kafka but he doesn't mind the comparison.

5. Oh, comparisons to other writers; aren't you funny with your Sebastian Knight joke, Mr N? Though apparently he was no fan of George Meredith.

What else? Loads, but I've no time at present. I wonder what my next Nabokov read will be.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Out of the blue, and into the black

Anton Chekhov, one of the greatest writers of fiction, never wrote a novel. He tried, and even published some long works that he thought would one day become a proper novel in the vein of Tolstoy, but Chekhov never managed to figure out how to structure a novel-length work. He moans about it in letters to his publisher and promises one month to finish and the next month he throws up his hands and declares the novel an impossible form. Some people, maybe, are best left off as miniaturists. Which is fine. Chopin wrote no symphonies, and a great deal of the best music of the “classical” period is the chamber music writ by guys best known for their orchestral works. So small is nothing to be ashamed of. The short story is a form that continues to confound me, after all. This preamble is all to say that some people shouldn’t write novels.

Edgar Allen Poe, possibly, is one of those people. His short novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, while certainly influential over everyone from Melville to Twain and beyond, is not a very good book. Formally, it’s a hash. The three sections have little to do with each other and the ending is abrupt (though the endnote by Poe is amusing and points to one possible interpretation of the final act of the story), and there has been considerable critical noise to the effect that Poe simply abandoned the novel when he realized he had no ending. A good case can be made for Pym being an artistic failure. And nobody can tell you what Poe was getting at with this book; what—if any—the overarching themes are is an unanswerable question though plenty of critics have given it a go. The last footnote in the text is quite long and really funny; if I had the book to hand I’d quote it, for it lists about fifty ways Pym has been interpreted, as everything from promotion of the “hollow-earth” theory to a wish-fulfillment fantasy of Poe’s having to do with his hated foster father. A great deal of evidence supports the idea that the third act, at least, is a shrill warning to the South that the Northern states with their abolitionists are going to stir up a bloody rebellion among the black slaves and the white race ought to be wary because you cannot trust the North and you certainly cannot trust the black race. Poe was writing in 1837 and lots of critics have pointed out all of the white=good/black=evil images in Pym. See also, I suppose, Mat Johnson’s recent novel Pym, which I have not read but I’ve read about, and which book actually got me to read the Poe, for I plan to read Mr Johnson’s novel this year some time.

So not a good book, as I say, a total mess that takes forever to get anywhere and may at its heart carry a frightened racist message. Still, one can’t help but see how Pym has influenced other writers. Moby-Dick is Poe’s novel writ much larger, Melville showing Poe how it ought to be done. Everyone should know that Moby-Dick is a masterpiece even though it is a leisurely stroll with many nonfiction digressions and a pretty abrupt ending, just like Poe’s book. You can see ripples of Pym in Moby-Dick, and you might see other ripples in Huck Finn, though the message about race is turned on its head by Twain. Certainly you can also draw comparisons between Pym and Heart of Darkness, with Conrad hewing pretty closely to Poe's symbolism and possible fear of a black planet. Hmm. Conrad wrote in 1899. Twain in 1884. Melville in 1851. I don't know what any of those dates really mean regarding theme and interpretation or why I added them to this post, but there they are for the curious.

There’s more to be said about Poe’s only novel, but I’m too scattered, too whelmed with deadlines at the office, and too much not the right guy to speak intelligently about literature to say more than I have. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is an odd little failure of a book, but I’m glad I read it. I am sure that there are many novels that fail as novels yet are still worth reading.