Sunday, March 9, 2014

I am naturally forgetting some books: another list

People have recently been putting up lists of authors and/or books on t'internet: books they wish they'd written, books they've read multiple times, authors they have not read, authors they feel they should read someday, and a few other listy type things. I am going to join the madness by posting here, for God knows what reason, a list of the books that are actually, at this very moment, stacked up in the boudoir in the official "to be read next" piles. I will attempt to also include as many of the other books I mean to read soon that are scattered about the house. I will not attempt to remember any of the unread books that have already found their way into the alphabetical-by-author-sorted shelves lining too many walls in too many rooms. Here we go:

Henry James The Awkward Age
Witold Gombrowicz Ferdyduke
Leonid Tsypkin The Bridge Over the Neroch
Vladimir Nabokov The Tragedy of Mr Morn
Samuel Beckett Krapp's Last Tape and Other Dramatic Writings
Henry James The Art of the Novel
Harold Bloom How to Read and Why
Colm Toibin The Empty Family
John Cameron The Astrologer
Alexandre Dumas The Count of Monte Cristo
Walter Scott Guy Mannering
Flannery O'Connor Everything That Rises Must Converge
Anton Chekhov Sakhalin Island
Herman Melville Typee
F. Scott Fitzgerald This Side of Paradise
Jim Murdoch Milligan and Murphy
Elie Wiesel Night
Joshua Mohr Some Things That Meant the World to Me
Leonid Tsypkin Summer in Baden-Baden
Ivan Goncharov Oblomov
Ben Jonson Three Comedies
Leonardo Sciascia The Wine-dark Sea
John Williams Stoner
Charles Dickens The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Gabriel Garcia Marquez Memories of My Melancholy Whores
William Faulkner Selected Short Stories
Albert Camus The Fall & Exile and the Kingdom
Herman Melville Pierre
Muriel Spark Memento Mori
Stendahl The Telegraph
Sam Savage The Cry of the Sloth
John Updike Gertrude and Claudius
Nathanael West Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust
Virginia Woolf The Voyage Out
Henry Fielding Tom Jones
V.S. Naipaul A House for Mr. Biswas
Thomas Carlyle A Carlyle Reader
Ralph Waldo Emerson The Portable Emerson
Thomas Bernhard Concrete
Benito Perez Galdos Our Friend Manso
John Hawkes The Blood Oranges
John Hawkes The Lime Twig

I am naturally forgetting some books. But that should give me a good start for the remains of this year. Eight remaining Shakespeare plays to read as well, and I will of course return to Chekhov's stories soon, and have I even thought about poetry yet? Plenty to do.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Last Greek: a fragmented overview of Pontoppidan's trolls

Peter Andreas "Per" Sidenius, the hero of Henrik Pontoppidan's novel Lucky Per, is one of Scandinavian literature's troll characters, a beast who crawls forth from a cave to live in the world of men. Pontoppidan maintains this troll image throughout the novel, interweaving it with the image of the "20th-century man," who is someone with no time for culture and polished manners and a good liberal arts education because he is instead obsessed with certain ideas of progress and dominance (over nature, over tradition, over other men and other nations, over the precise shape of the future, etc). Per has spent a good deal of energy over the first half of the book distancing himself from his rural priest of a father, who has just died believing himself reconciled with his wayward son. The wayward son, after the funeral, leaves behind a clear sign that no reconciliation has taken place.

There is a lot in this book about family and the relationship between "modern" sons and their "old fashioned" fathers. Which might explain why I'm re-reading Turgenev's Fathers and Sons while I'm reading Lucky Per.

One of Pontoppidan's clever tricks with this novel is the way Per views his own basic humanity (a reader might call it his basic sense of goodness) as a weakness, a poison in his blood that is part of the troll heritage he strives to put behind him. In solitary moments Per has deep feelings of love for a select few humans, feelings he must quash in order to maintain his "20th-century man" forward motion. For example, Per has managed to become engaged to Jakobe Salomon, oldest daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant in Copenhagen. Per originally pursued Jakobe for money only, but it becomes clear to him that he is in fact in love with her. This is something he will not plainly express to his fiancee.
"I want you to say it, at least one time, to hear how it sounds when my dearest tells me he loves me. Do it now, Per."

"But dear, I have really often told you that..."

"But you haven't said those words, Per[...] Listen, now--you just repeat my words so it will be a mutual acknowledgment: I"

"I," he repeated.


"No, this is really too stupid Jakobe," objected Per, red in the face and with his hand on her mouth.
Later, Per is alone in his dark trollish apartment, when he realizes he misses Jakobe and writes a letter to her:
"Perhaps in certain moments of discouragement I could complain about my fate that let me be born in a country where, long ago, a pastor's son named Adam married a parish clerk's daughter Eve and gradually filled the earth with these million Sideniuses. But when now I look back over the past years, I feel that a guardian angel has followed me through life and, although I have often been wayward and chased after false glitter, I am here now with the golden crown of triumph in my hand: you and your love.

I feel the need to hold you again in my thoughts and thank you before I go to sleep. What I could not, before, manage to say when I sat with you and you asked me to, I now will whisper to you in the still of the night: I love you!"

When, in a solemn mood, he read through the letter the next day, he thought it affected and burned it. He wrote her another letter, instead, in which he spoke mostly about his book. "The printing is taking a devil of a time..."
That should serve as a nice representation of Per's relationship to his own feelings, his fear of backsliding into a sentimental and weak troll.

The troll theme is carried by more characters than Per and by more settings than Per's hometown. Here is a bar in Copenhagen, a cave filled with trolls:
The cafe where he had now become an habitue and where he wasted more time and money than he could afford was called "The Pot." It was frequented by a bohemian clique known as "The Independents," consisting of younger, and singular older, beautiful souls, genuine talents who, nevertheless, had in some way become stalled, either never really maturing or growing old before their time.
The Independents are mostly trolls: Fritjof Jensen, a painter who looks like a Viking, a sick melancholic poet named Enevoldsen, a figure painter named Jorgen Hallager "with a bulldog face, inciter and anarchist, who wanted to overturn society, reform art, abolish academies, and hang all professors, but who supported himself legitimately as a retoucher for a photographer." There is also Reeballe,
a bow-legged, wig-wearing dwarf with one shining eye and one dim, whose long yellowing goat's beard hung over his always dirty shirt front--the inevitable target of all caricaturists in the city's humorous papers. He willfully circulated among the tables, often in a fairly drunken condition, with a chewed cigar stump in the corner of his mouth and with one or both hands tucked behind him in his waistband, darting here and there among people he didn't even know and mixing his nonsense into their conversations. He, also, wanted to reform the world, but in the classic spirit. His ideal was Socrates, with his standpoint of clear, sober knowledge. In moments when his mind was fully befogged, he liked to strike his breast and call himself "the last Greek."
There is of course also Lisbeth, the aging actress and artists' model, who has posed for all of the Pot's figure painters and sculptors, and slept with most of them, and who worries that she's losing her looks and livelihood. Hey, wait a minute. Where have I met these people before? Yes, in Fathers and Sons, and in some Gogol stories, but also in the London smart set passages from Lawrence's Women in Love, and in the streets and cafes of Chris Isherwood's Berlin Stories. Probably also at my own table when I spent time in dark cafes during my twenties, when I smoked Sobranies and ate psychedelic mushrooms and called myself a little undiscovered genius when I wasn't off practicing with my band. Ah, youth. Et cetera. Insert cliche image of a middle-aged man's laughter at himself.

I see I haven't really approached the "20th-century man" theme, with all its concerns over engineering, construction and money. Maybe next time. I confess to a sneaking suspicion that Pontoppidan is trying to tell me that we are all trolls at heart, and that maybe being a troll isn't so bad. We'll see what the second half of the novel implies.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

"More could not be done for him," a Hans Christian Andersen amuse-bouche

And so the butterfly proposed to the mint at last.

But the mint stood stiff and still, and at last it said, "Friendship, but no more! I'm old, and you're old! We could live for each other very well, but get married--no! Let's not make fools of ourselves in our old age!"

And so the butterfly got no one at all. He had searched too long, and that is something one shouldn't do. The butterfly became a bachelor, as it is called.

It was late autumn with rain and drizzle. The wind sent shivers down the backs of the old willow trees so that they creaked. It wasn't good flying outside in summer clothes--you'd be in for an unpleasant surprise, as they say. But the butterfly didn't fly outside, either. He had accidentally gotten inside, where there was a fire in the stove, yes, just as hot as summer. He could survive. But "surviving isn't enough!" he said. "One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower!"

And he flew against the windowpane, was seen, admired, and stuck on a pin in the curio chest. More could not be done for him.
That's from "The Butterfly," by Hans Christian Andersen, Patricia Conroy translation. This is not the promised Pontoppidan excerpt post. I have interrupted Lucky Per off and on over the last couple of days to read Mr Andersen, and I wanted to put this snippet onto the blog because I might refer to it when I post some Pontoppidan stuff from Lucky Per very soon. It's the knowing fairy tale tone of voice I want to remember here. The breezy casual brutality.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

"Only seven guineas. That--or thereabouts" a very intensely dull writing update

I have finished a detailed revision of my novel Go Home, Miss America. Very soon I will begin to query literary agents about representing the book. I have had agents before, so I know the drill, you boys. One must consider carefully how to pitch one's wares. The novel is maybe sort of a cross between Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda and Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. I can’t say that in a query letter. The novel is set partially at a major university. That’s probably not something to put into my query letter; "campus" novels (which this isn’t) are not in vogue. The novel asks existential questions about meaning in life. I can’t say that in a query letter, either. Readers want plot, not purpose. Tread lightly, yes? The novel’s protagonist is an educated young woman with sincere religious faith. I very likely can’t say that in a query letter. The novel is funny. I can say that in a query letter. There are goats. That’s probably safe, too. There’s sex and violence and profanity. Does that increase the marketability of the book? I’m certain that it does. Or it doesn’t. Anyway. It’s a pretty good novel, so we’ll see. Tomorrow I'll quote some witty and insightful Henrik Pontoppidan bits. You will enjoy that one.