Friday, April 30, 2021

because I mistook



Mighty Reader and I have been celebrating the 2021 COVIDmania version of Seattle Independent Bookstore Day,  which this year is a ten-day event, so we are making a leisurely time of it. Yesterday we visited Magnolia's Bookstore where I picked up Charles Johnson's Night Hawks and Roberto Bolaño's The Spirit of Science Fiction.The first because I mistook, in the heat of the moment, Johnson for John Keene, author of the excellent collection Counternarratives. The second because I have never read any Bolaño and TSoSF was the only thing of his the store had on the shelf. Magnolia's Bookstore is right next to the Petit Pierre bakery, and of course we bought five or six pastries to bring home.

On Saturday we visited Paper Boat Booksellers, a local shop owned in part by Eric Judy, who you of course know as the original bassist and co-founder of the band Modest Mouse. Eric is a nice guy who loves bookstores, and now he's got one of his own. I picked up three books there: If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani (because I have enjoyed every novel I've read so far published by Archipelago Books), The Penguin Book of Migration Literature (because these Penguin collections are always mighty fine and I am interested in the literature of displacement), and Daniel Kehlmann's Tyll, a retelling of the story of Till Eulenspiegel, which I read in German as a teenager.

Traditionally, we visit ten or so bookstores in a single day, cycling madly around Seattle with well-timed stops for restorative pastries or pints. This year there's none of that, what with one thing or another. If it isn't raining tomorrow, we'll probably leap onto our bikes and visit a few more stores and further pump the local economy and perhaps pick up some more pastries.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

in fact, nothing at all


One thing that keeps striking me about Brookner's writing in Latecomers is how it reminds me of Nabokov. The resemblance seems pretty strong to me, but I've been having a devil of a time putting my finger on why. I can't necessarily point to anything specific in the novel, yet there must be something to set off my Vladimir Detector(tm), mustn't there be?

I made a little note to myself yesterday of "Nabokovian qualities in Brookner" and here's what I wrote down:

  • Witty, (gently) merciless
  • A process of exposing, of peeling away protective layers
  • The exposure is for the reader, not the character.
  • The characters are puppets, mental constructs; who cares how they feel? They feel, in fact, nothing at all. 

That is not much of a list, I grant you, and certainly nothing in it is particularly insightful. Perhaps some actual prose would help.

 Toto, leaving Oxford with a poor degree and a large following, had given much thought to his future. The details were vague in his mind but the outline was bold: he simply knew that he would be prodigious. In an exemplary way--exemplary in the sense of accurate foreknowledge--he knew that he was born to be a prodigy, for the word had suggested itself to him when he was a young boy, fretting at the confines of his bourgeois home, 'Je suis en enfent prodigue,' he had said to himself; he was in his Baudelaire phase at the time and longed to have a stepfather whom he could hate, instead of Fibich who forgave him everything. The path he was to take was unclear to him, but he was convinced that it led to stardom. He idly contemplated notions of couture or modelling; however, acting was his metier, he felt, not the old fustian stuff of drama school and years spent in provincial repertory, but instant fame on the small screen, springing into a million homes, knocking the inhabitants flat with the sheer lustre of his personality. In the meantime, until the day of his discovery, he had little to do, for it was simply a question of waiting until somebody noticed him. That someone, he saw, would be a woman, one of the new hard-pressed breed, working frantically for a television company, but taken off guard and becalmed into wistfulness by his unusual good looks, his splendid body; he would present his profile to her, then turn full-face and look her brazenly in the eye, and the next thing he knew she would have secured him a part in her next production. Anything would do: he would accept a serial to begin with. But what he had in mind was one of those masterly fictional exposes of the condition of England, in which corrupt schoolboys prefigure the handsome damaged adults who habitually compete for eminence in the inflated world of espionage.

Does that not strike one as Nabokovian? "he was in his Baudelaire phase and longed to have a stepfather whom he could hate" is pretty good, as is "taken off guard and becalmed into wistfulness by his unusual good looks." The final sentence of the excerpt is especially good. How about this, then:

His college years were not particularly happy. To be sure, he enjoyed many of the things he found there--he was in fact quite overcome at first to see and smell and feel the country for which he had always longed. A real hansom cab took him from the station to his college: the vehicle, it seemed, had been waiting there especially for him, desperately holding out against extinction till that moment, and then gladly dying out to join side whiskers and the Large Copper. The slush of streets gleaming wet in the misty darkness with its promised counterpoint--a cup of strong tea and a generous fire--formed a harmony which somehow he knew by heart. The pure chimes of tower-clocks, now hanging over the town, now overlapping and echoing afar, in some odd, deeply familiar way blended with the piping cries of the newspaper vendors. As he entered the stately gloom with gowned shadows passing in the mist and the porter's bowler hat bobbing in front of him, he felt that he somehow recognized every sensation, the wholesome reek of damp turf, the ancient sonority of stone slabs under heel, the blurred outlines of dark walls overhead--everything. That special feeling of elation probably endured for quite a long time, but there was something else intermingled with it, and later on predominant. In spite of himself he realized with perhaps a kind of helpless amazement (for he had expected more from England than she could do for him) that no matter how wisely and sweetly his new surroundings played up to his old dreams, he himself, or rather still the most precious part of himself, would remain as hopelessly alone as it had always been.

 Well, that is very Nabokovian, because it's the first page of Chapter Five of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, with any direct references to Sebastian removed. Page chosen at random, from the first volume of Nabokov I could put my hand on. I don't think I've made much progress solving the puzzle of why Latecomers seems so Nabokovian. I will continue to gnaw at this problem.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Green Man, for the amusement of Marly Youmans


 I post this photo of our green man planter, coiffed and bedizened by Mighty Reader this afternoon, because he has long reminded me of the works of Clive Hicks-Jenkins, illustrator of many books by Marly Youmans, one of my favorite living authors. Were I Marly, I would write an ekphrastic poem about Mr Green and his hair-with-birdhouses-and-fennel-and-baubles, but I am no poet and so merely post the photo. You can't tell because there's nothing in the picture to give it scale, but the whole installation is about four feet tall.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Hartmann had the ideas and Fibich did the worrying: it suited them both perfectly.


I'm reading Anita Brookner's 1988 novel Latecomers, which tells the story of two Jewish boys who come to London as refugees from Nazi Germany. They meet and--despite their quite different personalities--bond at a horrible boarding school, forming a friendship that lasts the next fifty years. But of course I'm not here to talk about the novel itself. I want to talk about some ideas about writing novels that are forming as I read Latecomers

You might suppose that since I write of Brookner, I want to write about her prose, which is as always quite fantastic and alive, highly specific, cool-headed, ironic and beautiful. Yes, all of that, but I'll just let Brookner comment on her own writing, in this excerpt from a Paris Review interview:

I am not conscious of having a style. I write quite easily, without thinking about the words much but rather about what they want to say. I do think that respect for form is absolutely necessary in any art form - painting, writing, anything. I try to write as lucidly as possible. You might say that lucidity is a conscious preoccupation. I am glad people seem to like it.

I am not sure how much I trust that statement, as Brookner is an unreliable narrator (and it is true that all novelists are, at heart, liars). But regarding my own prose, I believe I am willing to finally admit that I have lost the war. There was a time when I thought that I was going to do--indeed was doing--interesting and innovative things with prose, stretching possibilities and bending the shape of the sentence to make language behave in a new way. I thought I was approaching the musical and poetic possibilities of speech, that I had somehow got my hands on the roots of language and would make it grow into forests hitherto unexplored, etc. Of course none of that was actually happening, and none of that is in my future. If there is one thing that the study of poetry has taught me, it is that I am not a poet and that what I'm attempting to do in terms of prose style has nothing to do with poetry or the potentialities of language, and is nothing grander than creating an amalgam of the prose styles I admire in other writers, in order to arm myself with reliable weapons. I am not inventing anything; I am plundering tombs and polishing ancient artifacts until I can see my own face reflected thereupon.

This is a disappointment, as you may well imagine. My intent was to be expansive (explosive!) and transformational (transgressive!), and my results are traditional and comfortable. I guess that's not so bad, after all, and it certainly explains my lack of sympathy with the (mostly American) writers who are obsessed with the sentence. And my disappointment here is happily enough counterweighted by the successful (so I tells meself) work I've done in terms of form and thematic/symbolic content. As none of my novels except The Astrologer (a book I would happily ignore forever could I but get a second novel published) has made it to the light of day, as the saying goes, I cannot easily demonstrate any of the pointless (why am I writing this, after all?) claims I make herein about my writing. You'll have to take my word for it. For now anyway, as I tells meself in optimistic moments.

What Brookner, in her allegedly style-free prose is doing, is exploring ideas. Ideas, as I wrote in this very blog some years ago, are the basic unit of fiction. A novel is made out of ideas, not out of sentences. Sentences give transmittable form to ideas, and a great many (mostly American) novels seem to be constructed of shiny sentences that clothe nothing at all in the way of ideas. I like to think that my own (invisible) novels are built of interesting ideas. I like to think that my novels are the development of intertwining ideas that are rooted in those things which matter (to me, at least). I like to think that my novels are built of good ideas.

Anita Brookner's ideas are better than mine. No, maybe that's not true. Maybe it's that Brookner's development of ideas to which mine are similar, is better done, closer to the bones of humanity than my development is. That feels less inaccurate. I think that I might be exploring a lot of the same ground, a lot of the same ideas, as the novelists I admire. Likely I admire these writers because they explore areas of my interest (Pnin is so relatable!), and thus I reveal myself as the sort of reader-looking-for-a-mirror that I claim to (rightly) disdain. I don't know. I have been seriously writing novels for about the last fifteen years, and I believe that most of my novels have been failures of one sort or another. The failure has been as interesting as the attempt, in most cases. Beckett famously said that one does nothing but fail, and just keeps trying to "fail better." 

I am currently drafting a new novel, and though the prose may do nothing new, I think the ideas are good, and also timeless, and I think the formal elements of the narrative (wasn't I going to talk about that in this essay?) are pretty solid and also interesting, so I'm doing what I tells meself is good work. Once, many years ago, I believed that the work I did as a novelist was "as good as anything anyone else is doing." I no longer believe that, but the writing remains interesting. Everyone, as they say, needs a hobby, and there is only so much violin playing that Mighty Reader will tolerate around the house. I do not believe I have said anything here, but I tried to say nothing as lucidly as possible.