Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Year in Books, 2013 edition

Highlights in reading, in order of appearance, hit-and-run style:

1. Muriel Spark The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: Jean Brodie is an amazing creation, and the novel's dense looping structure was a delight to behold. I will read more of Ms Sparks' novels as they fall into my hands. A Far Cry From Kensington was good, but it was no Brodie. Still, I'll keep an eye out, and we have Memento Mori on the shelf already.
2. James Joyce Finnegans Wake: I tried to read this a few years ago and only managed 100 pages. This time around I stopped fighting against Joyce's language and just let it carry me along. Finnegans Wake is a beautiful and dazzling failure but even as a failure it remains a great work of art: unknowable, mythical, yet wholly human; funny and puzzling and finally moving. The Anna chapter that closes the book still makes me weepy if I think about it. I also sometimes shake my fist at the ghost of Joyce because in a way I can't quite describe, I have been estranged from fiction ever since reading this novel.
3. Leonardo Sciascia The Day of the Owl: Sciascia's novels of crime and justice in Sicily break the mold for detective fiction. This book showed me how to free myself from the restrictions of genre conventions, and was the lifeline that pulled me through the drafting of The Hanging Man (see below). Sciascia writes brief, dense books where heroes do not save the world, for the world is not there to be saved.
4. John Ruskin The Seven Lamps of Architecture: Great stuff, sometimes even about architecture. Sometimes full of lunacy. I am looking for more Ruskin but have had, surprisingly, a difficult time finding it around here. For now I'll have to be satisfied with the (extremely) abridged Stones of Venice I picked up at Magus Used Books last week.
5. Anton Chekhov: This year I finished up the 13-volume Tales of Chekhov set of 300+ stories translated by the beloved Constance Garnett. In 2014 I will begin reading the set again, starting with the first volume. I'm also reading Chekhov in other translations, mostly because Garnett did not translate all of Chekhov's stories. I cannot begin to say how important Chekhov is to me as a reader and a writer. Very, that's how much. Lots, too. Heaps, etc. I have however not yet finished my long-term project of reading all of Shakespeare's plays. I've read most of them. Those English history plays languish on the shelf. But I started in on "Richard II" last night, so there, Mr Shakespeare.

The living author who I'm most pleased to have discovered this year is Marly Youmans, who wrote Thaliad and A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage. I'm looking forward to reading more from young Ms Youmans. She has an impressive catalogue.

These are most of the books I read in 2013 (I'm not listing nonfiction titles I'm plundering as research for my own marginal novels):

Muriel Spark The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
William Shakespeare Pericles
Joan Aiken The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Graham Greene Brighton Rock
Eduard Mörike Mozart's Journey to Prague
Ivan Turgenev A Lear of the Steppes and Other Stories
Yukio MishimaThe Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea
Kingsley Amis Lucky Jim
Miguel de Cervantes The Dialogue of the Dogs
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume Nine
Michael Sims (ed.) The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime
Voltaire Candide
Michelle Davidson-Argyle Out of Tune
Franz Kafka Amerika
Arthur Quiller-Couch On The Art of Writing
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume Ten
Nikolai Gogol Dead Souls
Chandler Klang Smith Goldenland Past Dark
Vladimir Nabokov Mary
Marly Youmans Thaliad
Aristotle Poetics
James Joyce Finnegans Wake
Anne Gallagher The Earl's Engagement
Leonardo Sciascia The Day of the Owl
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume Eleven
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume Twelve
Sarah Jewett The Country of the Pointed Firs
Maurice Dakobra The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars
Andre Gide The Counterfeiters
Albert Camus The Plague
Vladimir Nabokov Lectures On Literature
Flannery O'Connor A Good Man is Hard to Find and other Stories
Mary Shelley Frankenstein
Leonardo Sciascia To Each His Own
Artistotle Ethics
Agatha Christie Appointment With Death
Muriel Spark A Far Cry From Kensington
Anton Chekhov The Undisovered Chekhov
Gustav Meyrink The Golem
Miranda July No One Belongs Here More Than You
Graham Greene Stamboul Train
Anzia Yezierska Bread Givers
James Boswell The Life of Samuel Johnson
Gao Xingjian Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather
Howard P Lovecraft The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories
John Ruskin The Seven Lamps of Architecture
Marly Youmans A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage
John Ruskin Lectures on Architecture and Painting
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Volume 13
Vladimir Odoevsky Two Days in the Life of the Terrestrial Globe
Robert Louis Stevenson The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and other stories
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt The Most Beautiful Book in the World
Charles Dickens Oliver Twist
Flannery O'Connor The Violent Bear it Away
Jack London The Sea-Wolf

Writing 2013 was rather a mixed bag. My debut novel, The Astrologer, was published on March 1st by Rhemalda Publishing. In September, my book went out of print when Rhemalda Publishing went out of business. So there was that. I have since wasted many hours seeking a new agent and/or a new publisher. No good news on either front yet, although I have received a handful of polite rejection notices to assist me in my ongoing battle against the sin of pride. Mostly, you know, the submissions process is just a big vacuum into which one shouts as loudly as one can. Not even an echo is heard.

I wrote a new book this year, a sort of detective novel that ignores the conventions of the mystery genre. Very soon a revised draft of that will be in the hands of three eager readers. I'm already onto another project, revisions to the novel Mona in the Desert. I expect great things from this little book. Not a book deal, but other, greater things you could not possibly understand. I am also laying the groundwork for the drafting of Melville Hart's Atlas Of, which will be sad and beautiful and, hopefully, baffling and maddening. We shall see.

Richard December 31, 2013 at 11:01 AM
Nice to see you single out the Spark and the Sciascia titles, Scott. Great choices. Hope to make more time for more from both of them and some time for Chekhov and Joyce next year. Ruskin will probably have to wait to get added into the mix through no fault of his own. Anyway, Happy New Year to you and continued productive reading and writing times in 2014.

scott g.f.bailey December 31, 2013 at 11:20 AM
Richard, I enjoyed your 21 golazos post; I had no idea you read The Ambassadors this year! What a book that is. Your essay on it is quite fine, too. In 2014 I'll read more James and I also have a copy of Bernhard's Concrete sitting right in front of me.

marly youmans December 31, 2013 at 2:38 PM
Young? That's what I call excessive buttering-up!
But thank you, Scott! Your good opinion is much appreciated.

scott g.f.bailey December 31, 2013 at 2:52 PM
You are but 8 1/2 years older than me, and I am still young.

R.T. December 31, 2013 at 3:14 PM
Isn't Pericles the most wonderfully flawed but splendidly interesting play?
When Shakespeare takes over the work at about the half-way point (pushing the other writer aside), the play comes alive in the most spectacular ways.

marly youmans December 31, 2013 at 4:11 PM
Excellent! Wrote you a proper thanks-with-link on the blog and am thinking about how I ought to read some more Muriel Spark.
Now, back to tapas and champagne...

Anne Gallagher January 1, 2014 at 6:07 AM
I am quite flattered to be included in your list. A very small fish in a very literary pond.

Davin Malasarn January 2, 2014 at 9:36 AM
Happy New Year, Scott. I enjoy reading your annual recap posts, so thank you! The excerpts you posted on Seven Lamps of Architecture earlier were fascinating. I'm looking forward to reading that book on my own. I'm also eager to read The Hanging Man if I get to. I hope 2014 is a year of ongoing writing success and publication clarity!

scott g.f.bailey January 2, 2014 at 9:43 AM
Davin, thanks and Happy New Year to you! I hope you read the Ruskin; it's a great book even if you don't care about architecture, but what he says about light and dark will probably interest you as a painter. You will have a copy of The Hanging Man as soon as I fix some typos, etc. I wish you and Peanut and TN all the best for this coming year!

Michelle D. Argyle January 4, 2014 at 5:43 PM
I'm impressed. :)

scott g.f.bailey January 5, 2014 at 1:28 PM
Michelle, two of your books will be on my 2014 list!

seraillon January 7, 2014 at 2:43 PM
Scott - what a fantastic and enviable list, on which I count a whole bevy of writers I've already planned to read this year - Chekhov, Ruskin, Meyrink, Lucky Jim, my every-ten-years re-read of The Plague, plus Eric Emmanuel Schmitt and Joan Aiken - and many other writers I look forward to discovering. And with luck I'll get to The Astrologer too, finally. I'm eager to see what you'll tackle this year.

scott g.f.bailey January 7, 2014 at 3:12 PM
Your own list was pretty good for 2013, I must say. All those desert books, for one thing, and a healthy mix of Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese literature. And Jules Verne! Who reads Verne these days? I will be poaching from your 2013 list in 2014.
I warn you that the Emmanuel Schmitt struck me as over-rated; sort of feel-good stuff for people who like pretty prose and not much else.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being

Mighty Reader and I have decided to have another Dickens readalong, this time with Oliver Twist. I have never read this one; Mighty Reader has. She warns me that it is much closer to the David Lean film than to the musical "Oliver!" we just saw. Which is fine.

This was Dickens' first proper novel (I am led to believe, by the critic who introduces my edition of Oliver Twist, that Pickwick Papers and the "Sketches of Boz" stories are not novels; I have read neither, so I don't know.) It will be interesting to compare it, both in terms of style and technique, with his later works. Mighty Reader and I read Our Mutual Friend last year, if you remember. Even if you don't.

The book starts strong:

Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.

For a long time after it was ushered into this world of sorrow and trouble, by the parish surgeon, it remained a matter of considerable doubt whether the child would survive to bear any name at all; in which case it is somewhat more than probable that these memoirs would never have appeared; or, if they had, that being comprised within a couple of pages, they would have possessed the inestimable merit of being the most concise and faithful specimen of biography, extant in the literature of any age or country.

Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being born in a workhouse, is in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being, I do mean to say that in this particular instance, it was the best thing for Oliver Twist that could by possibility have occurred. The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration,--a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter. Now, if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time. There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them.

That's good stuff. Even with the jokes, this is all about death. Look at the vocabulary:

the item of mortality
sorrow and trouble

The all-about-deathness continues as the chapter develops. And what's this "rather unequally poised between this world and the next" business? Oliver spends most of the novel unequally poised between worlds, yes?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"the night's smother of warmth": inaccurate statements about A Death At The White Camellia Orphanage

A couple of days ago I finished Marly Youmans' beautiful 2012 novel A Death At The White Camellia Orphanage. I come here not to review the book, except to say that it's a wonderful novel and I recommend it to you. I can't review it because not only do I not know how to write a proper review, I'm not sure what to say about the novel. I don't know how to talk about it without diminishing it.

On the surface, Youmans has written a sort of picaresque bildungsroman, the story of a young boy cast adrift into the world to find his way, to have adventures of love and loss, and to learn that the world contains all that is evil and all that is good. And ADATWCO works on that level. The young protagonist, Pip Tatnall, journeys across America and grows from child to young man (or from young boy to older boy, I suppose is more accurate). He solves the mystery of his younger brother Otto's murder and is reconnected with his own family. So the book works very well on the surface level, on the level of "what happens next?" It's a solid tale, quite pleasingly told, and even if Youmans doesn't give us the traditional coming-of-age story arc, the narrative has a satisfying shape to it. No, no: let me rephrase that. Youmans gives us a nontraditional story arc, which surprises and succeeds entirely.

But ADATWCO is more than that. There is a spiritual underpinning to the novel that is perhaps less easy to discuss than the characters, setting and plot, though I would claim this spritual underpinning is by far the more important part of the book. The Christian images pile slowly up and the symbolic net is drawn tighter as the novel progresses, and Youmans' best formal trick--the palindromic structure of important thematic elements--becomes the shape of the entire novel, the theme of the whole work. I'm not sure how much of that to talk about. The first shall be the last. What is low shall be raised high, etc. The Alpha and the Omega. The prodigal son, the Church as home, the Father as father, Mary as mother and home and church, etc. It's all there, all subtle and below the surface. Youmans never browbeats you with her message, and the novel, as I say, or should have said by now, works beautifully on this symbolic level just as it works beautifully on the surface level. It's quite a feat.

Anyway, I'm not sure at all how to talk about this book, because it can be viewed happily from several angles, and I worry that a discussion of the foundation of faith upon which the story of Pip Tatnall is built will be somehow off-putting for potential readers. A Death At the White Camellia Orphanage is not Pilgrim's Progress; it's not didactic or moralistic. It is, however, a deeply moral book, written in gorgeous glittering prose, entirely earthbound in its story and not afraid of poking into the dark corners of real life but also fearlessly--if in a more subtle way--pointing away from that darkness. If wherever God dwells is therefore His temple, then the whole of the universe is a temple, and the temple is filled with both good and evil, yet is entirely holy and we are always in His presence; and so we are always home if we only look up and take note of that fact. That's something, that's some trick. I am sure I mis-state Marly Youmans' themes here. That shouldn't stop you from buying and reading her novel.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

"Not possible! That Jarry? I took him for a servant."

Late in Andre Gide's novel The Counterfeiters, in a chapter titled "The Argonaut's Dinner," we stumble across a familiar literary figure:

Passavant had sent for three fresh glasses, which he filled with kummel. They all four drank Olivier's health. The bottle was almost empty, and as Sarah was astonished to see the crystals remaining at the bottom, Passavant tried to dislodge them with a straw. A strange kind of clown, with a befloured face, a black beady eye, and hair plastered down on his head like a skullcap, came up.

"You won't do it," he said, munching out each one of his syllables with an effort which was obviously assumed. "Pass me the bottle. I'll smash it."

He seized it, broke it with a blow against the window ledge, and presenting the bottom of the bottle to Sarah:

"With a few of these little sharp-edged polyhedra, the charming young lady will easily induce a perforation of her gizzard."

"Who is that pierrot?" she asked Passavant, who had made her sit down and was sitting beside her.

"It's Alfred Jarry, the author of Ubu Roi. The Argonauts have dubbed him a genius because the public have just damned his play. All the same, it's the most interesting thing that's been put on the stage for a long time."

"I like Ubu Roi very much," said Sarah, "and I'm delighted to see Jarry. I had heard he was always drunk."

"I should think he must be tonight. I saw him drink two glasses of neat absinthe at dinner. He doesn't seem any the worse for it. Won't you have a cigarette? One has to smoke oneself so as not to be smothered by other people's smoke."

He bent towards her to give her a light. She crunched a few of the crystals.

"Why! It's nothing but sugar candy," she said, a little disappointed. "I was hoping it was going to be something strong."

The hijinks continue at this drunken party of the Paris avant-garde literati, as Jarry pulls out a loaded pistol and later, one poet challenges another to a duel. The recent debut of Jarry's play dates the novel's setting for us, and we know we are in 1896.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Theater and Its Double

I tell myself, day after day, that I am going to write about Andre Gide's 1925 novel The Counterfeiters, the book I'm reading just now. I'm about 80% of the way through the novel and so far there has been the barest mention of what will become a subplot about counterfeit coins. I confess that I thought this book was a crime novel, a caper, as it were. I remember reading about it in E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, but I couldn't remember what Forster said about it. Last night I had a look at the relevant pages of Forster's book, and I see that he admired Gide's craft--The Counterfeiters might be called a piece of conceptual art--but in the end called the book a failure because there is, in Forster's opinion, more concept than content, maybe. The novel is too self-conscious of its status as artwork and not trying hard enough to be a story. What in God's name, you are wondering, is Bailey talking about?

The Counterfeiters is a story without a central point of view. There is the presumed author, who may be Andre Gide, and there are his characters--from the middle class, the upper middle class and a few members of the nobility in Paris, in the late 19th Century (Gide never gives a date but there are deliberate clues in the narrative as to when the events occur). The characters are based on real people, but the presumed author lets us know in asides scattered through the book that these book people are invented. One of the invented book people is Edouard, a novelist. Edouard is writing a novel, or at least planning a novel, called The Counterfeiters. Edouard's novel takes as its central point the tension between truth and falseness in life, the deceptions and self-deceptions people engage in contrasted with the reality (such as it is) of their lives. Edouard is a character in a novel called The Counterfeiters, a novel that takes as its central point the tension between truth and falseness in life, etc. The bulk of the novel written by Andre Gide consists of the journals of Edouard, which are primarily notes about the characters who will appear in Edouard's novel. He carries on a running critique of his characters. The presumed author of The Counterfeiters, the novel in which Edouard appears, also carries on a running critique of his characters. The presumed narrator of The Counterfeiters reminds his readers that his characters are imaginary but asks us to play along with the game of pretending that they are real people, because he is fond of his creations, even the wicked ones. The author of the fictional novel The Counterfeiters, Edouard, reminds himself that the people he writes about are real, and he must see them as they really are no matter how they disappoint him.

All of this is pretty seamless and amusing and the Gide novel, The Counterfeiters, is a good penetrating analysis of a certain section of middle class society and a certain type of educated person overly concerned with appearances and probably self-absorbed. Edouard, the observer of everyone around him, mostly limits his observations to how the actions of other influence his feelings about the relationships he has with these others--in other words, how their actions make him feel about himself. I'm sure that was deliberate on Gide's part, and nicely subtle.

This book does not have a central "story problem," a "what will happen next," or a "how will this situation resolve" driving the action. One of Forster's objections to The Counterfeiters is that Gide supplies characters, and while these characters interact and their movements create intersecting patterns, there is no plot, per se. There is no grand story of causation in this novel. Forster sees that as a failure. Forster, I might opine, needed to get out more. I should not have read his comments about Gide's novel last night, because now I feel the urge to rebut Forster, and there's no point in that. Forster is dead, and Modernism has had its day, put its stamp (or not) on whatever the modern novel is, and now we're in some sort of post-post-postmodern era where once again we're told the novel is dead, plus ca change etc. I find myself rambling.

The Counterfeiters is sort of a picaresque novel, a sort of Don Quixote of the educated classes, but with the Don Quixote character replaced by a Cervantes character doing research for a book about a knight errant. The Counterfeiters is a sort of Tristram Shandy without the bawdy humor (but with a lot more sex), a lot of movement toward a story but no real story. It reads like a novel, though. I assume that, if I'd read it in 1927 when the first English translation was published, it would strike me as more avant-garde than it seems today. Forster's claim that Gide's lack of a central point of view is essentially a literary conceit, a self-conscious attempt to be different and new, just shows that Forster never read Dostoyevski. I wish I'd stop going on about Forster. Forster isn't part of this. The Counterfeiters is a good book. What I meant to say is that The Counterfeiters is making quite an impression on me as I write the first draft of The Hanging Man, a novel about a detective who investigates the death of an unknown man at Wilburton Kansas in 1935. Character, I think. The pattern of intersections, I tell myself. The hanging man is already dead; he's a fixed point around which the little town of Wilburton is allowed to revolve. The detective walks through this and disrupts the patterns; I write it all down.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...
This book sounds all right. Why couldn't Forster just come out and say that he thought the thing Gide was trying to do was not worth doing? Now I am dragging him in. Irresistible.
scott g.f.bailey said...
You've read Gide before though, right? I have no idea how his writing might have changed over the years, if much. But this first book of his is certainly worth reading. Forster might've thought it mad, but we've all seen enough stuff like this by now that we can see the content beyond the formal elements. The formal elements are fun, though. It's sort of anti-Flaubert, but not; the control is aimed in a different direction, that's all.
Amateur Reader (Tom) said...
I spent an amusing week writing up The Immoralist. It was a book that irritated me until I saw through the prank - good one, André!

And come to think of it, I read the first volume of his journals, which goes up to 1914 or so. I should read more someday.
scott g.f.bailey said...
Gide published his journal entries about writing The Counterfeiters, and the edition I'm reading has them as an appendix (probably most editions do). Your Immoralist series is good stuff. This comment is probably the last thing I'll write about The Counterfeiters.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Drive-by photo posting Friday.

The Astrologer on the "new fiction" shelf at the Seattle Public Library.

Next week, I swear, there will be an excerpt from the work-in-progress novel, and I also intend to write something about Andre Gide's excellent 1925 novel The Counterfeiters. I'm looking at as many French novels from the 20s as I can, and if they include criminal activity, so much the better.

Monday, July 22, 2013

while keeping one eye on the road

This post is another of those annoying entries written for myself so I can look back and track the progress of my current work-in-progress. So you can stop reading now if you like; I won't be offended.

The Hanging Man, previously titled Circus in the Dust, the sequel to The Transcendental Detective, now has four chapters of first draft. That's pretty good. I've been drafting it since May 9 and I've written about 26,000 words. I think. The word count is iffy because all but the first chapter exists only in the form of my longhand MS. I really need to sit down and type the damned thing up soon in case I lose my handwritten version, which would be a tragedy for me and likely I wouldn't even attempt to reconstruct the novel. I'd just write something else. There are plenty of other things to write.

The writing is going well, I think. As I said to my friend Michelle D. Argyle last week, "it seems to be working so far." For those of you who've never written a novel, putting together a first draft can sometimes seem like the act of assembling a car piece-by-piece while simultaneously driving it at high speed down a twisting mountain road. It's exciting and nerve-wracking and fun and you really can't see what you're doing because you have to work the ratchet driver while keeping one eye on the road and feeling around behind you for the next bit of car you want to bolt into place. Fun, as I say. I much prefer revisions. Revisions are a civilized pursuit. First drafts are for crazy people.

There was something else, but I can't remember what it was. Aristotle? Poe? Baudelaire? Kierkegaard at Large? No, it's gone. Oh, maybe it was a brief description of the book: Patience Quince, Algerian police detective traveling through America in 1935, is present at the discovery of the body of an unknown well-dressed man found hanging by the neck in the county equipment shed at Wilburton, Kansas. Patience is temporarily stranded in Wilburton, and cheerfully offers herself in a professional capacity to Sheriff Jack Hawke, who does not want her assistance with the investigation into the death of the hanging man. Et cetera et cetera including dust storms, a circus, telegraph operators, German immigrants and an unread letter, not to mention a very bad painting of a landscape and an immense wooden trunk bound in brass. When you pick up this novel and give it a shake, it will rattle with quite a lot of noise, I promise you.