Friday, December 31, 2021

Books and other things read, 2021

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol 2 by Edward Gibbon
Marling Hall by Angela Thirkell
The Misalliance by Anita Brookner 
The Age of Chivalry by Thomas Bulfinch 
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol 3 by Edward Gibbon
Val/Orson by Marly Youmans 
Latecomers by Anita Brookner
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
The Sea by John Banville
Metamorphoses by Ovid
Tales of Chekhov, Volume 5 by Anton Chekhov
"The Sin of Jesus" by Isaac Babel 
Das Mädchen by Angelika Klüssendorf 
The Death of Methuselah and other stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer 
The Legends of Charlemagne by Thomas Bulfinch  
The Baroque Violin & Viola, Volume I by Walter Reiter 
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky 
Notebooks for The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky 
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett 
Fifth Business by Robertson Davies 
The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt
Melville: A Novel by Jean Giono 
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson  
Nocilla Dream by Agustin Fernandez Mallo  
Nocilla Experience by Agustin Fernandez Mallo 
Nocilla Lab by Agustin Fernandez Mallo  
The Amateur by Andy Merrifield
EEG by Daša Drndić 
Black Snow by Mikhail Bulgakov 
Violin and Keyboard: the Duo Repertoire, Volume I by Abram Loft
That looks like a pretty short list, but I suppose the Gibbon and Bulfinch were pretty fat texts that I spent a long time with. Some of these books left hardly any trace upon my memory. I won't name any names, because how can it matter, even to me. I'm glad I read all of it, even what I forgot while I was reading it. There is no down-side to reading a lot. Daša Drndić's EEG is an amazing book, I will say. Dostoyevsky and Chekhov never let me down, either.
In 2022 I plan to read more books I've never heard of, by authors I've never heard of. I also plan to re-read a lot of Chekhov and Shakespeare. Why wouldn't I? Possibly I'll start in on the second half of Gibbon's Decline and Fall, the three volumes about the Eastern Empire. I might could, as Flannery O'Connor once said. I note with some chagrin that the above list includes only authors from either North America or Europe.
In 2022 I might also do some more work revising my Antarctica novel, but as I said recently to Mighty Reader, there is something I still haven't figured out about that book, but I don't know what that something is, so I'm still waiting until I do. But who knows. Many things are possible. I will probably be writing fiction, but I don't have any clear direction in terms of a new book. I am not bothered by this lack of clear direction, since the artistic compass is a liar anyway. Probably I'll continue to expand the novella I wrote this spring, about life on the Colorado prairie in 1976. Ideas somehow keep coming, I'm pleased to say. I will try to get some professional interest, as the saying goes, in my Chekhov novel-in-stories. My prediction is that I'll be typing that identical sentence in my 2022 year-end post.
In non-reading and non-writing news, I have moved on to Mozart's sonatas for piano and violin. They are all extraordinary, all different, all startling and original. Great stuff. I will need to find a pianist willing to do some heavy lifting if I plan to perform these works. I'm starting with K. 304, which is the one in E minor, the famous one everyone plays because it's easy enough to sight read through. It has an exquisitely beautiful second movement that aches and sobs gently. Alongside that piece I'm working on K. 379, with its lovely adagio opening and then that bouncing semi-ferocious minor-key allegro that seems to prefigure the Rondo alla Turca from three years later. Et cetera and you are not interested so I stop there.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

a new development

 There is nothing more unjust than the vulgar opinion, by which physicians are misrepresented, as friends to Death. On the contrary, I believe, if the number of those who recover by physic could be opposed to that of the martyrs to it, the former would rather exceed the latter. Nay, some are so cautious on this head, that, to avoid a possibility of killing the patient, they abstain from all methods of curing, and prescribe nothing but what can neither do good nor harm. I have heard some of these, with great gravity, deliver it as a maxim, “That Nature should be left to do her own work, while the physician stands by as it were to clap her on the back, and encourage her when she doth well.”

--Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

I have discovered over the last couple of days that Blogger will not let me comment on Blogger posts. Not on your posts, nor on my own posts. So huh. I confess myself a little surprised that Blogger is letting me write this post, so capricious has it been. Possibly the universe is attempting to force me into silence, and who could blame it? I've noticed a tendency in myself of late to be a little disruptive in meetings at work, a disruption that wavers somewhere between belligerence and bafflement. Maybe I'm just exhausted by Zoom, as so many of us now are. I don't know, but even I wish I'd be quiet, and that, I assure you, is a new development.

Monday, December 6, 2021

I understood that in this book the narrator is investigating other people's lives, those close to him and not so close, to reach his own, and that in every search facts are not enough, facts are dead without compassion, without feeling and a bit of personal suffering.

Now I have time at a time when I don't have any time.

EEG was written by Daša Drndić in 2015, when she knew she was dying of lung cancer, and she was in a hurry to get it all down on paper. Claire Messud, in her Guardian review of the novel, sees this awareness of the ticking clock as the root of a flaw in the work, which she calls "incontinent, ill shaped (or unshaped) and shoddily written." Happily that's not Messud's final word on the book, as she also says, "[The] rambling intensity is alternately exhilarating and intolerable: there is great wisdom, along with dark history, in these pages, for those ready to take on the challenge."

If I were to mention the majority of the subjects we thrashed out, I would do even more damage to the form, the form of this text of mine, wouldn't I? Which would further upset its blinded readers (and critics) who look for a cemented form of regular shapes, harmonious outlines, a form filled with a cascade of connected words, of which it would be possible to say that its characters are nuanced, the relationships, emotions and reflections distinctive, and the style polished; that the ease of narration comes to full expression (whatever that means), that the characters are alive and convincing and remind us of people we know, we feel close to their doubts, their fears, their expectations and disappointments. What vacuity.

EEG is, loosely, the story of retired Croation psychologist Andreas Ban, who is visiting his sister Ada in Zagreb. Ada lives in a large house the Ban family used to own. The house has been divided up, sold off to newcomers with money, and Ada is left with the dark basement and a small garden, where she has shrunk into herself, waiting to die. There, over games of chess, Ada and Andreas remember the past. Andreas also remembers the present. What they remember is war, worldwide and civil, always leading to genocide, massive thefts and sweeping pogroms. They remember the Nazis, and the European governments that assisted them; they remember the Soviets and Stalin's gulags; they remember the civil wars that tore Yugoslavia into pieces and the mass executions and mass graves; they remember the Italian fascists murdering 700,000 Abyssinians in the runup to World War II, a genocide nobody but  Ethiopians think about. Andreas Ban (and therefore Daša Drndić) remembers all of this,and says the names of the victims because "history remembers the names of the perpetrators, not the victims," and so evil is immortalized while the world pretends their evil never happened.

I was suddenly overcome by a wave of my politely suppressed irritation, my intolerance burst through, I was overwhelmed by the anger that grows in me when I listen to stubborn details of what is obvious, unconvincing tales and anecdotes relativizing wars and the horrors war brought (and still bring) and it all came back to me and swirled up and at least for a moment I breathed...

The book is divided into sections, each pursuing a different but related theme. There is a list of chess players who went mad and jumped from windows, with speculation as to which of these players could've gotten the idea from Nabokov's Luzhin Defense. This is followed by a list of chess players who were arrested by Stalin's minions and either executed or sent to forced labor camps. Many of them were "rehabilitated," or formally aquitted of their crimes, in the 1950s, most of them long dead by then. A good number of them were guilty of nothing more than creating hypothetical chess problems. The bulk of the narrative, though, is Andreas Ban's trip down the memory lanes of genocide, the KGB operations against chess players a springboard into Soviet murder of counter-revolutionaries of all stripes, which leads to Latvian Nazi collaborators, which leads to Serbian and Croatian Nazi collaborators, to Mussolini, to the Yugoslavian breakup and the subsequent wars featuring "ethnic cleansing" and so on and so forth. Daša Drndić is angry, as she should be. As should we all be. "There are no small fascisms," she reminds us.

All of this is grim, but as presented in the weary voice of Andreas Ban, it is also gripping, human, and immediate in a way that (to point to a sort-of similar book) Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago is not. It is strange to call such a book entertaining, but EEG is entertaining, or at least it has its amusements. Ban is, despite Messud's claims to the contrary, a living presence in the narrative. He has cataracts and lousy health insurance, his step mother has swindled Ada and him after the death of their father, his friends are all dying, his ex-lover (whose father was a Nazi collaborator) is trying to contact him, and Ban is cranky with an identifiably Thomas Bernhard crankiness that grates as it amuses as it grates on the reader. Which is good stuff, if you're me. Bernhard is even mentioned by name, as are any number of Balkan novelists, poets, painters, and other artists, past and present. It's as if Drndić, on the threshold of death, is writing an obituary for the whole of the Balkans.

Today Latvia is crisscrossed with memorials and ardently developing tourism, which is officially called dark tourism. This is when people from the West visit killing fields en masse, clutch their hearts and exclaim Oh my God, unbelievable! Incroyable! Nicht zu fassen! then they go to dinner in some traditional restaurant to sample national specialties. To feel the pulse of the country they are visiting. Latvia has a lot of forests.

I was surprised by a reference to Vsevolod Garshin's story "Four Days" late in EEG. I read "Four Days" last year, I think it was. A memorable story, the internal monologue of a soldier who lies wounded in a field for four days, facing the corpse of an enemy soldier. I'm always happy to spot literary references in novels by writers I don't already know. Like we were in the same class back in the day or something. But Garshin's story is a good touchstone for Drndic's novel: we bleed to death on scattered battlefields, looking at all the surrounding death, knowing the pointlessness of the violence.

I brought my father's ashes from Zagreb to Rijeka. I let him spend the night in the living room, where there were books, a Turkmen carpet and souvenirs which he had given me. The next day I took the bus that goes around Istria, I put my father on the seat beside me, and took him for a drive, his last sightseeing tour of the towns, villages and hamlets he had visited on foot who knows how many times during the war, whose people he loved, to bid them farewell.

Friday, November 19, 2021

La cathédrale engloutie

It's taken me nearly three months, but I have finally written a synopsis for my novel Mona in the Desert, a novel I finished a few years ago and am still occasionally submitting to publishers on the off chance they might want to put it out into the world. I've written synopses for two other novels and I hated not only the process, but also the results. I am however pleased with what I've written for Mona, and I really enjoyed the work this time. Instead of a summary, I've written a retelling of the novel, letting myself have as much fun in the telling as I could, which turned out to be plenty. So even if the publisher decides to give my novel a miss, I have learned how to pull a synopsis out of a whole novel and have a good time in the process, and that is a valuable acquisition for an amateur novelist's toolkit. I assure you, as Dante would say. No, not that Dante.

Whenever I submit a novel to a publisher or a literary agent, I always spend some time looking over the text of the novel. Because I manage to turn out a finished novel every couple of years, and because my only published novel was finished in 2011, I have got a pile of novels to shill. My opinion of these novels shifts around as the years pass. Sometimes I feel as though these books are Want and Ignorance, clinging to me beneath my robe, the the world and I would be better off without them. Jon Evison literally buried his first six unpublished novels in a hole he dug in his back yard, ceremonially killing them off. I keep dragging mine around. That can hardly be healthy, I guess. And yet. I always feel that I haven't done enough for them, like I'm Schindler and the world of publishing is the SS. Which comparison is hardly apt, I assure you, as Nietzsche said. Yes, that Nietzsche. 

But what was I saying? Oh, yes, I like to look over the novels again, some of which I haven't laid eyes on in years, before packing them a lunch and sending them out into the world to take their chances. Usually I find myself thinking, Well, you're a pretty good book. I'm so glad I wrote you. Look both ways before you cross the street. Once in a while I read a paragraph and think, Eh, that's a bit clumsy, stand still while I comb your hair and fix your shirt collar. What I thought when I was reading Mona again was that it's a pretty good book, and also odder than I remember, in terms of structure. I remember that I was trying something new with this one, having in mind the image of the narrative shaped like a cloud of autumn leaves blown off a tree, swirling around the reader's head, full of motion, one color swiftly replaced by another. A plainer way of saying this is that the narrative loops around on itself, the chronology out of order, events interrupting one another as a way of showing contrast and similarity, etc. It's one way to create dramatic irony as well as a way to introduce patterns (which are basically repetitions with or without variation, see Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Musical Composition for details). It is not a technique I invented, by any means. I saw it in Rushdie, in Faulkner, in Joyce, in Woolf, and who knows who else. Sterne, obviously. Mona in the Desert is certainly a descendant, at least spiritually, of Tristram Shandy. A narrator allegedly talks about himself while discussing his family instead, or vice versa. And vice versa. But without all the bawdiness.

The oddness of my narrative caused me, I think, to read Agustin Fernandez Mallo's Nocilla Trilogy in a way I might not have ordinarily. It's an experimental novel, by which I mean it's not a straightforward "realist" narrative in the vein of Tolstoy or Flaubert. It's also not highly original in that Mallo hasn't invented any of his many technical innovations; the books are more like a catalog of modernism and postmodernism (if, yes, you ignore the fact that postmodernism begins with Cervantes, or maybe Apuleius, and like the poor has always been with us, usually in the shadows of the best sellers or whatever). The first book in Mallo's trilogy is made up of interleaved fragments of multiple stories that are connected by coincidence, location, or theme. The second book is more of the same, but with the stories more closely connected, and with more emphasis on literary criticism and metafiction. The final book goes in a different set of directions, the first third being one long unbroken paragraph that leans heavily on Joycean stream of consciousness and Steinesque repetition, telling a single story (that loops around on itself in time as the narrator digresses and then catches himself digressing, and thanks to a recent post on Emma's blog I am able to say that yes, this reminds me of Bernhard's writing in Concrete). This story continues into the second section of the book, but is now in chronological order, but broken up into numbered sections, interrupted at one point by captioned photographs a la Sebald. Then comes a short graphic novel, after a collection of what appear to be "found" fragments written when a writer named Agustin Fernandez Mallo meets someone with the same name and they both lose their identities in radically different manners. That section is pretty entertaining in a Charles Kinbote sort of way. The trilogy is, as far as I understand, supposed to be a demonstration of what Mallo thinks is possible (or even necessary?) in contemporary fiction. A working out of some ideas he has about post-poetry, whatever that is. A textbook, almost.

The books are worth reading, certainly, and I liked each one more than the previous. As he moves from book to book, Mallo seems to gain control or understanding or both over his themes and his materials. This trilogy is a work about art and memory and the transitory nature of love, which is to say that it's a normal sort of novel in its way, a version of Remembrance of Things Past if you like, and it also put into my head the idea that it really doesn't matter if a writer innovates. The claim that one needs to find or create new forms in order to express new ideas is simply not true. Mallo has written one novel while employing a dozen writerly devices, and as far as I can tell, the content of each section could be swapped with the contents of any other section, or rather the literary devices could all be swapped around randomly, and Mallo would've been able to tell his tale just as effectively. Innovation is not necessary. It's fun for the writer and the reader, but my long-held suspicion that novels--fiction in general, or maybe art itself--is built primarily out of ideas rather than technique, seems to have been once again confirmed. I'm using a lot of undefined terms here, I know. Anyway, the ideas that Mallo illustrates with his experiments, or his catalog of forms, are good ideas that I am in sympathy with, which is what makes me say it's a good novel. He also handles his materials and tools well most of the time, so the novel succeeds on that front as well, but the tools and materials are really beside the point. A workmanlike writer can create a great novel if he has good ideas. A fantastic technician cannot create a great novel, no matter his skill, if he lacks good ideas. Good ideas about the world, about humanity, I mean. Do I believe any of this?

Yes, I think I do. Not that, to get back finally to my original subject, I think that Mona in the Desert is a great novel, or that I think I am innovative or necessarily even expert with my materials and tools. Maybe all I wanted to say, something I really only wanted to say to myself so you'll have to forgive me the use of this post in my saying it, is that my novel is strangely-constructed, but the novel is not strange in that it's about art and experience and relationships, the common mud out of which all civilization is constructed, so maybe it's a pretty good book after all. I worry about sending it out into the world all alone, that's all.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

To write is to attempt to know what we would write if we were to write.

Agustin Fernandez Mallo's Nocilla Dream, first book in his Nocilla trilogy, is apparently one of the most influential novels of the 21st century, if you're a Spanish writer. Until 2006, when Nocilla Dream was published in Barcelona, Spanish literature was conservative, old-fashioned, stodgy. At least that was the opinion of a lot of living Spanish novelists, and Fernandez Mallo's book, originally put out by a tiny independent press and now published by a bigger publisher and translated into many languages, sort of blew the doors off of Spanish fiction. 

Fernandez Mallo is a physicist and a prizewinning poet, working in a style/technique/whathaveyou he calls "post poetry," which might be the same thing as postmodernism, whatever that is. Nocilla Dream is not a poem. It is 113 short items (ranging from as brief as one paragraph to as long as five or six pages) that accumulate into a coherent narrative, sort of the way the contents of one's house might gather together into the story of the house's occupants. Some of the items are excerpts from non-fiction essays on a number of subjects, some are fictional excerpts from "non-fiction" works, but most are glimpses of the various narrative threads that wind around each other.

It's all pretty good, and somehow interesting and propulsive right from the first page, even if one has no idea what's going on. I just keep reading, from one item to the next, and maybe part of that forward drive is simply from wondering what I'll see next and how it'll either connect with what's already happened or point to further developments. Which is, now that I've written that all down, just how any "normal" story works. And I was just about to say that really, most of what Fernandez Mallo is doing in Nocilla Dream is not new outside of Spain. The book refers often to Borges, which I take as an acknowledgment that Fernandez Mallo is borrowing from modern Latin American fiction. Although in Iberia, Cortázar and Pessoa had already been working some of this territory, too (and Perez Galdos got a little wacky in 1882 with the metafictional framing device of Our Friend Manso). I won't pretend to any expertise on Spanish/Portuguese/Latin-or-South American literature. But I think Nocilla Dream has given modernism/post-modernism/post-post-modernism a real push into the mainstream in Spain. At least that's what the online essays I've read tell me. And I am not claiming any value in Originality, either. Everything new has already been done. "There's plenty of good music still to be written in C major," as Schoenberg once told his composition students.

Anyway, what's in the book, right? Lots of stuff. One set of narratives is based on a stretch of U.S. Route 50. Route 50 actually leads from California all the way across the continent to Maryland, but Nocilla Dream looks at the 409 miles of highway that crosses the middle of Nevada. Actually, the novel is concerned with a stretch of about 260 miles of Route 50, running through the desert between two small towns (Carson City and Ely), with nothing to see except a lone cottonwood tree, whose branches are adorned with hundreds of pairs of shoes, thrown into the tree by passing motorists. The tree is a sort of nexus for the novel, which also somehow includes characters in Denmark, Mexico, Salt Lake City, Poland, Chicago, and other locations. It's a short book of brief chapters, but it holds within itself the entire world. And the entire world, in this version, is lonely and empty. 

So, we're in agreement with the idea that Heine is an Austrian journalist, a correspondent for the Kurier in Vienna, and that he's lived in Peking for the last six years, married to Lee-Kung, a Chinese woman. Their block of flats looks made of concrete, but no. It's only a conglomerate of sand and iron shavings extracted from low-grade Turkish mines, later pressed and solidified with the use of a glue called SO(3). Inside this structure, the marriage collapsed long ago.

Lee-Kung is having an online relationship with an American rock climber named Billy, who we meet as he drives along Route 50 on a climbing expedition, his son (Billy the Kid) strapped happily into the bed of a pickup truck. Heine is sent to prison for pedophilia after being caught by a TV film crew while having sex with a teenage prostitute. The stories all sort of spiral outward and hook into each other. The narrator is matter-of-fact and possibly a little amused by it all, which is a thing these days in non-"realist" fiction. It's a comic and ironical eye.

A neutron monitor was first built in South Dakota, and then five years ago another was built on the outskirts of Beijing, both in the depths of mines so as to avoid contaminations by other sun-based particles. The monitor is a very large water pool, the size of a six-story building, in which the slightest impurity, animal, vegetable, or mineral, would render the project null and void, and as it has turned out it picks up one or two neutrinos a year. At a glance, it's blue, bluer than the waters off any beach. For a while now, inside this bunker of extremely pure water, Chii-Teen, the lead physicist, thinks he's been seeing clusters of algae, though they then disappear. But today he's already seen the tail of a mermaid.

This post's title is one of the novel's epigrams, from Marguerite Duras' essay collection Writing.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope

Doing our civic duty again.


We stopped at Paper Boat Booksellers to do some Halloweenish shopping. These books all looked suitable to the season, or suitable enough anyway.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

the dislocation is always present

The uncertain position we all maintain in life asking when will violence strike, when will devastation occur, leaves us looking like the hapless swimmers at the beginning of each Jaws movie. Innocent, tender, and delicious. Our legs tread water, buoyed by all that is right and good and deserved in this world, a house, healthy children, clean food to eat, love. While that animatronic shark, a beast without mercy, catches the scent of blood and locks in on his target.

"Sam?" I call softly so the bad guy won't know we're separated. There's no answer from downstairs. What is taking him so long to come back?

I hold the night the way I would a child who finally fell asleep. Like I'm frightened it will move. I am frightened it will move. I am always scared my life will suffer some dramatic, sudden change. I try to hear deeper, to not shift at all, to not breathe, but no matter how still I stay there's no report from downstairs. What if Sam is already dead, killed by the intruder? Maybe choked by a small rope around the neck? What if the bad guy, in stocking feet, is creeping upstairs right now, getting closer to my babies, to me?

Part of me knows he is. Part of me knows he is always and always will be.

I offer that passage as not only an example, but also a sort of summary, of what one finds in Samantha Hunt's story collection The Dark Dark, which I picked up on Seattle Independent Bookstore Day about two years ago and have ignored until last weekend.

The writing throughout is plain and uninflected, which seems to heighten the emotional content of the stories because the prose doesn't build, it chooses to merely present. The juxtaposition of plot weirdness and matter-of-fact language makes the weird seem weirder, so that's a good technique for a writer to know, a handy way to make sudden small shifts in the story's reality fabric jump off the page. An errant adjective can carry a lot of weight here.

Pulling off onto the soft shoulder, he felt a certain resistance from the undercarriage. The vehicle and the animal had been joined in a terrible unison. He sat without moving. Perhaps it wasn't a dog. Perhaps it was some other creature, a beast unnamed and unknown, part woman, part deer. The thought gave him pause. He sat. Not long but long enough to know the thing was truly dead. There'd be no watching it limp away into the dark night, no gnashing of teeth. He would not have to back the car up and over the creature. He would not have to kill it a second time.

Hunt writes about states of being, which is common enough in fiction, isn't it? She often uses the metaphor of leaving and/or returning home, or more generally: a place one has fled, and the place to which one flees. From the vantage of one of these locations the protagonist remembers why she has taken flight. In a few cases the dislocation is temporal rather than geographical; sometimes it's not the dislocation of the story's main character, but the dislocation is always present. Dislocation, in fact, is a major structural tool for Hunt, especially the dislocation of characters from their sense of reality. I've seen this collection labeled "liminal fantasy," which I think means something like Kafkaesque or toying with supernatural events, the kind of modern American literary version of magical realism, I suppose. Liminal fantasy has been going on since the dawn of storytelling, I'd say, but that's not a complaint and it's a fine thing for Hunt to be doing.

Earlier, Susanne's husband had detected a certain ticking in her. He'd packed their children into the car for a night of pizza and a double feature at the second-run movie theater, leaving her alone to explode, to splatter the house with a combination of things she'd ingested as a teenager--films and punk rock records that confirmed what she'd guessed back then: one dies alone.

The book explores these ideas of dislocation (dislocation which is sometimes only the painful distance of reality from desire) in many directions. If I have any complaint about the collection, it's that while Hunt is striking out in multiple directions, she is making similar explorations each time, and even if the digging is widespread and the discoveries startling, it's not necessarily always a deep exploration. I might prefer if she stuck with one or two excavations and really got far below the surface. Perhaps she does that in her novels, which I haven't read yet. 

The Dark Dark is a disturbing book, with the feeling that violence is right around the corner, behind the turn of the next page. I can't quite say I enjoyed it, but I certainly felt something and I read the whole thing in just a few hours, reading three or four stories at a time.

The quiet of afternoon nature films pervades the hallways. At the end of a long row of lockers the thirteen father together undisturbed. With the sun just so, buffed circles of wax are visible on the vinyl flooring. The girls speak softly, huddled in a whirlpool. The light is full of dust particles.[...] One mentions the tenderness of her breasts as she lifts off the ground. Words slip from lips; the current gently eddies. The girl in the air is joined by two others, floating, balloons. They glow, lanterns above, more and more girls still, until the last one, full of grace, so round, leavers her tiptoes and lifts off the linoleum. In the air, the girls dip and reel. One turns giddy somersaults. Weightless, swimming. "Woo," she might say. "That feels good." Big as stars. Beautiful as a poisoned sunset and just as far out of reach.

One other thing that occurred to me last night is that Hunt's protagonists all interact with other characters, and those other characters come equipped with lives of their own; to have an opinion of the protagonist is not their main purpose in the stories. This is in contrast to Robertson Davies' Fifth Business, where characters exist merely in order for the protagonist to tell the reader how those characters feel about him, and exactly why they are mistaken in their opinions. Hunt's stories are full of people; Davies' novel is full of characters, but only one person. Hopefully I'm done talking about Davies now.

Monday, October 25, 2021

"The Devil knows corners of us all of which Christ Himself is ignorant."

Denyse had the normal dislike of a woman for the friends her husband has made before he married her, but I felt she was more than usually severe in my case. She possessed intelligence, conventional good looks, and unusual quality as an intriguer and politician, but she was a woman whose life and interests were entirely external. It was not that she was indifferent to the things of the spirit; she sensed their existence and declared herself their enemy. She had made it clear that she consented to a church wedding only because it was expected of a man in Boy’s position; she condemned the church rite because it put women at a disadvantage. All her moral and ethical energy, which was abundant, was directed towards social reform. Easier divorce, equal pay for equal work as between men and women, no discrimination between the sexes in employment—these were her causes, and in promoting them she was no comic-strip feminist termagant, but reasonable, logical, and untiring.
Boy often assured me that underneath this public personality of hers there was a shy, lovable kid, pitifully anxious for affection and the tenderness of sex, but Denyse did not choose to show this aspect of herself to me. She had a fair measure of intuition, and she sensed that I regarded women as something other than fellow-citizens who had been given an economic raw deal because of a few unimportant biological differences. She may even have guessed that I held women in high esteem for qualities she had chosen to discourage in herself. But certainly she did not want me around the Staunton house, and if I dropped in, as had been my habit for thirty years, she picked a delicate quarrel with me, usually about religion. Like many people who are ignorant of religious matters, she attributed absurd beliefs to those who were concerned with them. She had found out about my interest in saints; after all, my books were not easy to overlook if one was in the travel business. The whole notion of saints was repugnant to her, and in her eyes I was on a level with people who believed in teacup reading or Social Credit. So, although I was asked to dinner now and then, when the other guests were people who had to be worked off for some tiresome reason, I was no longer an intimate of the household.

What to do with Robertson Davies' Fifth Business? I assume that Davies told himself that the passage above was even-handed, neutral even, and didn't see the slant of bias running through it. Davies wrote a strange book of contradictions: his protagonist, a Protestant "hagiologist" who writes books about saints, claims sainthood for both a woman from his hometown and for himself, all the while resentfully misusing his still-living sainted woman in a series of thoughtless actions and then taking up willingly with the devil incarnate at the end of the novel. What Davies, or his narrator, doesn't know about saintliness is a lot. There is also a murder mystery in the last pages of the novel. So what have we got? A murder-through-hypnosis, a worshipper of saints who finds the only living saint in town to be an unknowable burden and source of constant guilt, a claim to sainthood on the part of the worshipper who uses this badge of sanctity to excuse his own selfishness, and a whole lot of small-mindedness into the bargain. A good writer could have a pretty fine time with all of this. Alas, Davies' treatment is stale, flat, and unprofitable. There's no irony, no self-awareness of the contradtictions; there's merely a haughty sort of Emersonian sense of rightness in all the narrator thinks or does. It is possible that I'm treating Davies too literally, that it's my interpretation that's stale and flat and his novel is quite clever but too subtle for me. I would be happy to see that demonstrated.

Monday, October 18, 2021

1970 must've been odder than I remember

I'm going to try to catch up on what I've been reading the last month or so. This post will be a disconnected, poorly-reasoned rush job. The usual, in other words.

My revisit to Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot was a success. What a great novel that is. There are tremendous structural flaws (read the Notes to The Idiot and you'll see that Dostoyevsky wrote and submitted to his publisher the first quarter of the book with no real plan for the remaining three-fourths of the story and fought his way through to the end), and our author never quite figured out what to do with a couple of the main characters, but it's still a masterpiece. If I live long enough, I'll read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov again. Karamazov is one of my favorite novels.

Our neighbors down the block have one of those "little free libraries" in front of their house, and some months ago I pulled The Maltese Falcon out and carried it home, where it sat for some time and my guilt over keeping it grew. I am not a particular fan of Hammett, but I read The Thin Man a few years ago and I have an interest in detective fiction. What interested me in The Maltese Falcon were three things:

1. Sam Spade, the detective, puts together the facts of the case with very little actual detective work. He more or less trips over information or is told things by people who should know better. There are two or three instances in the book of Spade meticulously going through the motions of a detective, scenes described in minute detail (He searched the place from wall to wall. His eyes and thick fingers moved without apparent haste, and without ever lingering or fumbling or going back, from one inch of their fields to the next, probing, scrutinizing, testing with expert certainty. Every drawer, cupboard, cubbyhole, box, bag, trunk--locked or unlocked--was opened and its contents subjected to examination by eyes and fingers. Every piece of clothing was tested by hands that felt for telltale bulges and ears that listened for the crinkle of paper between pressing fingers. He stripped the bed of bedclothes. He looked under rugs and at the under side of each piece of furniture. [...] He examined and tested the metal screens over the drains of bathtub, wash-bowl, sink, and laundry tub. He did not find the black bird. He found nothing that seemed to have any connection with a black bird.), but our hero does not accomplish anything through these actions.The more like a detective Spade acts, the less effective he is in solving the case. I am not sure Hammett was aware of the irony, as he seems to think we should be impressed by Spade's diligence and care.

2.  The Maltese Falcon was published in 1929 and features an openly gay character, Joel Cairo. Hammett takes it for granted that Cairo's homosexuality makes him despicable for the reader, and his stereotypical queeny traits make him a figure of ridicule and an easy and obvious target of violence for surrounding characters (His bathroom-cabinet was stocked with cosmetics--boxes, cans, jars, and bottles of powders, creams, unguents, perfumes, lotions, and tonics. Two suits and an overcoat hung in the closet over three pairs of carefully treed shoes.) That last detail is very nice; who but a gay man would take such good care of his shoes away from home? And there's this scene:

Spade growled. "And when you're slapped you'll take it and like it." He released Cairo's wrist and with a thick open hand struck the side of his face three times, savagely. Who gets slapped in the face? Women and queers, folks. Women and queers. Amirite?

3. The prose is almost uniformly horrible. I remember being unimpressed with The Thin Man, but I am truly taken aback with just how awful The Maltese Falcon is in terms of writing. Examples are too many to count:

She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness. Her eyes were brown and playful in a shiny boyish face.


She advanced slowly, with tentative steps, looking at Spade with cobalt-blue eyes that were both shy and probing. She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.

That's all easily mockable, and pretty much what the writing is like overall, but it gets worse:

Spade laughed. He put a hand down on the bird. His wide-spread fingers had ownership in their curving. He put his other arm around Effie Perine and crushed her body against his. "We've got the damned thing, angel," he said.

Take a moment to appreciate the tortured poetry of "his wide-spread fingers had ownership in their curving". Why would anyone write that?

I'm currently torturing myself with Fifth Business, a well-known and well-reviewed 1970 novel by Robertson Davies. It's a short novel, about 200 pages in the Penguin edition I have, but it seems very long indeed. The writing, on the prose level, is mostly fine though I think Davies tips his hand to show how impressed he is with his work, usually at his weakest attempts at cleverness, but I can live with that, most of the time. What annoys me turns out to be the narrator, who I realized last night reminds me of all the worst things about the narrators in the works of Robert Heinlein: he swims in a pool of smug--almost sneering--arrogance while making noises about his humility. It's just a humblebrag in the form of a Bildungsroman, and perhaps one should not be a fly caught in the amber of his own time and condemn amber-imprisoned flies from the past, but Davies' old boy view of women (oh, they have their uses, those whore saints, but don't let's educate them because women and the educational system are not suited for one another) does nothing but grind on my nerves. I tell myself that the narrator will snap out of his provincial conservatism at some point. I tell myself that the author doesn't really approve of his narrator. I would not bet on it, though. He's put up his dukes to have his say and he's absolutely convinced he's in the right. 1970 must've been odder than I remember.