Friday, July 29, 2011

The Watch by Rick Bass

My roommate gave me his copy of Rick Bass' short story collection The Watch to take on my recent road trip from New York City to California. I don't think we passed through any area really represented in these stories--Mississippi, Idaho, Utah, etc.--but we passed through a lot of empty space, huge swaths of the country nearly devoid of people, which seemed to match the book's setting as well as any place else. Bass' characters are lonesome as a rule, wanderers in empty spaces, ignorant of their own idiosyncrasies because they lack social context. Some stories are set in Houston; even these seem more like a Childe Harold-like wasteland.

The stories that work the best are the ones that dial down this strangeness and emptiness, however, like "In Ruth's Country," about a doomed romance between a Mormon girl and a non-Mormon boy. The two care a great deal for each other, but ultimately the girl must be married off to an insensitive cattle baron who already has several wives. The characters are thinly drawn, as elsewhere in the collection, but Bass is able to wring considerable pathos out of the situation:

"Ruth," I said, and looked at her. She was all dressed up, and wouldn't say anything. She was just looking at me: that look as if she was afraid I wanted to take something from her, that look that said, too, that she could kill me if I tried.

"The baby, Ruth," I said. I ran a hand through my hair. I was wearing my old cattle-chasing clothes, and I felt like a boy, out there in the hall. There was no one else around. We were in a strange building, a strange hallway, and the river seemed very far away.

"Not yours," she said suddenly. She clutched the Bible even tighter. There were tears in her eyes. "Not yours," she said again. It's the thing I think of most, when I think about it now, how hard it probably was for her to say that.

Less successful are offerings like "The Watch," an interminable story about the owner of a desolate general store who joins forces with a bicyclist to track down his elderly father, who has run away to found a community of poor black women in a malaria-ridden swamp.

The women had all screamed and run into the woods, in different directions, the first time Buzbee leaped into the water after an alligator; but now they all gathered close and applauded and chanted an alligator-catching song they had made up that had few vowels, whenever he wrestled them. But that first time they thought he had lost his mind: he had rolled around and around in the thick gray-white slick mud, down by the bank, jabbing the young alligator with his pocketknife again and again, perforating it and muttering savage dog noises, until they could not longer tell which was which, except for the jets of blood that spurted out of the alligator's fat belly--but after he had killed the reptile, and rinsed it off in the shallows, and come back across the oxbow, wading in knee-deep water, carrying it in his arms, a four-footer, his largest ever, he was smiling, gap-toothed, having lost two in the fight, but he was also erect, proud, and ready for love. It was the first time they had seen that.

It's hard to say why "In Ruth's Country" works while "The Watch" fails; clearly Bass prefers the latter story, since he named the entire collection after it. You certainly can't say that "In Ruth's Country" is more creative than "The Watch," but perhaps it resonates more deeply because the central conflict--the unattainable girl--is more generalizable. Reading about Hollingsworth and his father (named Buzbee, of all things) is a little unpleasant and deeply unsatisfying; it does not leave the impression that you have come into contact with another human being.

Human stories are the best stories, after all, and at its best The Watch provides them. When it doesn't, though, it can be a little like walking through that characteristic wilderness--Mississippi, Idaho, Utah, etc.--completely alone.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

08 The Remains Of The Day-Kazuo Ishiguro

Written in 1988, the author seems Japanese, and he is. But while he was born in Japan he also grew up in England. He writes in a very specific style. His sentences are elevated to a level of perfection only a British perfectionist could accomplish.
With 8 Academy nominations in 1994, the movie adaptation of The Remains Of The Day seemed to be taken quite well, critically. Let me just say that the movie was horrible. Anthony Hopkins will forever be Hannibal Lector in my mind. And as a butler, this Hopkins’ character would have eaten the leading men of Europe before WWII. This realistic fiction novel takes place in England after WWII. It is a story told by a butler, about his experiences with his employer who was extremely involved in British Foreign policy between WWI and WWII. 
The story is told as a series of journal entries by the protagonist Mr. Stevens, and he thinks his job is the only thing that fills his life with purpose. His opinion of dignity-a seriousness of behavior and a sense of self-respect and pride in ones actions-is the one most important aspect of his existence:
“The story was an apparently true one concerning a certain butler who had traveled with his employer to India and served there for many years maintaining amongst the native staff the same high standards he had commanded in England. One afternoon, evidently, this butler had entered the dining room to make sure all was well for dinner, when he noticed a tiger languishing beneath the dining table. The butler had left the dining room quietly, taking care to close the doors behind him, and proceeded calmly to the drawing room where his employer was taking tea with a number of visitors. There he attracted his employer’s attending with a polite cough, then whispered in the latter’s ear: ‘I’m very sorry, sir, but there appears to be a tiger in the dining room. Perhaps you will permit the twelve-bores to be used?’
            And according to legend, a few minutes later, the employer and his guests heard three gun shots. When the butler reappeared in the drawing room some time afterwards to refresh the teapots, the employer had inquired if all was well.
            ‘Perfectly fine, thank you, sir,’ had come the reply. ‘Dinner will be served at the usual time and I am pleased to say there will be no discernible traces left of the recent occurrence by that time.’”
(page 36)
Mr. Stevens is a rather boring man, that lives to work, in opposition to the way I live my own life, I work to live, and try to find joy in my profession along the way. Stevens’ life is his job. He has no social life, no friends, no aspirations or goals. He only cares about his job and making his master happy. The detail and amount of work that go into serving as butler are a bit preposterous. From shining silver, to dusting, to serving dinner, tea, drinks, and ordering other servants around the house. I would never want to be a butler, but while reading the first 30 pages I felt I would have made an excellent butler. I like to think I am one that has “a dignity in keeping with his position”

07 Tender Is The Night-F. Scott Fitzgerald

I never liked Gatsby, but I like recommendations. Tender is the spectacular study of one man, Mr. Dick Diver. Told in the third person, the three sections are dominated by three characters thoughts: Rosemary, Dick, and Nicole. Tender is a somewhat autobiographical look into Fitzgerald’s own life of love and mental illness. They are expats living it up on the French Riviera during the depression. I’m remembering why I didn’t like Fitzgerald in high school and college; while reading Tender I did begin to appreciate and even love his style.
We first meet Rosemary, the young American actress that has just hit the big time in a Hollywood production. She stumbled to the French Riviera with her mother and while on the beach, happens upon a lovely young couple-Dick and Nicole Diver. She falls in love with Dick, and we learn of all the upstanding and admirable qualities that Dick possesses. The three of them get along famously, and nothing scandalous occurs.
Dick is a young American psychologist writing a book about mental treatments. In Book two, his life is explained. He married Nicole, who was a mental patient, but not his patient. She is the youngest daughter of Chicago “old money.” The love they share is a fantastic thing. They have two children. Dick grows weary of the mental episodes Nicole displays and runs away to work and write and lecture. There is nothing funny about the sadness of the love between these two. It’s meant to fall apart.
I’m willing to give Gatsby another chance, I was young, and it’s easier now to appreciate style, and not use one’s personal life as a reason to not enjoy good writing.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

Christopher Hitchens once called Lucky Jim the funniest novel of the second half of the twentieth century. I don't think I can agree with that assessment--in fact, I would give my vote to Amis fils' novel Money, or maybe A Confederacy of Dunces--but I can understand the sentiment. The savagery of its satire, and its send-up of the British academic universe, are exactly what I would expect would make Hitchens laugh. It does contain what I think is probably the best description of a hangover ever written:

Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.

He will feel worse, when he discovers that he has burned a hole in the sheets of his host, Professor Welch, who happens to be the Dean of History at the provincial college where Dixon is a lecturer in history. Dixon's job is in danger--for other similar unintentional shenanigans--and his attempts to ingratiate himself to Welch are complicated by the fact that Welch is an insufferable blowhard, and so is his son, the painting Bertrand:

It was Bertrand who won the little contest. "The point is that the rich play an essential role in modern society," he said, his voice baying a little more noticeably. "More than ever in days like these. That's all; I'm not going to bore you with the stock platitudes about their having kept the arts going, and so on. The very fact that they are stock platitudes proves my case. And I happen to like the arts, you sam."

The last word, a version of "see," was Bertrand's own coinage. It arose as follows: the vowel sound became distorted into a short "a," as if he were going to say "sat." This brought his lips some way apart, and the effect of their rapid closure was to end the syllable with a light but audible "m." After working this out, Dixon could think of little to say, and contented himself with "You do," which he tried to make knowing and sceptical.

That's pretty funny, and it's funnier when Amis begins to slip this tic in elsewhere; at one point, Bertrand uses the word "obviouslam." To make matters worse, Bertrand has a very pretty girlfriend--blowhards often do--named Christine, who seems to fancy Dixon, though he himself is tied up with a manipulative and not very attractive girl named Margaret.

Much of the best comedic bits in Lucky Jim depict Dixon trying to navigate his precarious social and professional situation, and sometimes just pursuing sheer malice, through a series of pranks and tricks. He hides the sheets; he calls the Welch home pretending to be a reporter looking for Betrand; he writes a threatening letter to a rival pretending to be someone else. This is funnier because he isn't good at it, and is always being found out. The mockery quickly becomes something of a compulsion, reaching a disastrous head when Dixon, intoxicated, can't stop himself from delivering a public lecture while mimicking Welch:

When he'd spoken about half-a-dozen sentences, Dixon realixed that something was still very wrong. The murmuring in the gallery had grown a little louder. Then he realised what it was that was so wrong: he'd gone on using Welch's manner of address. In an effort to make his script sound spontaneous, he'd inserted an "of course" here, a "you see" there, an "as you might call it" somewhere else; nothing so firmly recalled Welch as that sort of thing. Further, in a partly unconscious attempt to make the stuff sound right, i.e. acceptable to Welch, he'd brought in a number of favourite Welch tages: "integration of the social consciousness," "identification of work with craft," and so on... Sweating and flushing, he struggled on a little further, hearing Welch's intonation clinging tightly round his voice, powerless for the moment to strip it away.

Ultimately, Dixon is only able to continue by mimicking someone else, and passes through a number of different voices before collapsing on stage. To some extent this is what Dixon deserves, not because he is a trickster but because he is as much a sham as anyone else. His recently finished article, "The economic influence of the development in shipbuilding techniques, 1450 to 1485," bores him to death, and was only written to please his superiors and lead the expected life of an academic:

Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own uselessness and significance. "In considering this strangely neglected topic," it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool.

Being a comedy, things will work out for Dixon. But it isn't at all clear to me that he deserves them, except perhaps in that he seems to know he is a sham, which is something Professor and Bertrand Welch refuse to admit. But the title suggests that maybe deserving the girl, the job, etc., is irrelevant:

It was all very bad luck on Margaret, and probably derived, as he'd thought before, from the anterior bad luck of being sexually unattractive. Christine's more normal, i.e. less unworkable, character no doubt resulted, in part at any rate, from having been lucky with her face and figure. But that was simply that. To write things down as luck wasn't the same as writing them off as nonexistent or in some way beneath consideration. Christine was still nicer and prettier than Margaret, and all the deductions that could be drawn from that fat should be drawn: there was no end to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones.

This is an interesting statement, and a troubling one, though it forms the lynchpin of the novel's serious treatment of moral questions. How then, do we revise our understanding of the luck that has enabled someone like Bertrand Welch to become a privileged, leisurely artist? As Hitchens notes, Dixon avers that "he badly needed another dose of luck. If it came, he might yet prove to be of use to somebody." The lucky Welches have spent their lives being useless to precisely no one--that's why they're academics, har har--and Amis leaves us with the suggestion that maybe Dixon, lucky for the first time in his life, might be able to make better use of it.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights is awful. I don't mean, of course, that it is bad, but that the experience of it is like being caught in a vice, so rife it is with cruelty and horror. The petty tribulations that Jane Eyre's family put her through do not compare, nor do the benign torments of Mr. Rochester, to what Heathcliff perpetrates in Wuthering Heights. My memory of him from pretending to read this book in high school was that he was a sort of Byronic anti-hero, devoted to his soulmate Catherine Earnshaw despite attempts to tear them apart, but that is only a partial--and thus very mistaken--perspective.

Heathcliff enters the novel mysteriously, a gypsy urchin brought home by Catherine's father. Heathcliff is his only name (and it matches the windswept, bleak terrain of the Earnshaw estate, Wuthering Heights). He and Catherine form an instant bond, and when their father dies, Catherine's cruel brother Hindley contrives to keep them apart, debasing Heathcliff as a servant, and the difference in their social station drives Catherine to marry the handsome, effete Edgar Linton. Yet, Catherine maintains that she and Heathcliff are so connected to one another that they share a soul:

"This is nothing," cried she; "I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth, and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights, where I woke sobbing for joy. That will do to explain my secret, as well as the other. I've no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low; I shouldn't have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not be cause he's handsome, Nelly, but because he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and Linton's is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.

Separated from Cathy, Heathcliff vows to wreak havoc on the external forces he perceives to be at fault, namely Hindley Earnshaw and Edgar Linton. He doesn't dare while Catherine is alive, but the tensions between Heathcliff and Edgar push her into madness and illness, and when she dies his cruelty becomes extreme:

He seized, and thrust her from the room; and returned muttering, "I have no pity! I have no pity! The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails! It is a moral teething, and I grind with greater energy, in proportion to the increase of pain.

The second half of the book--the better half, I think, though not the one that seems to be best remembered--details Heathcliff's revenge. He becomes a tenant at Wuthering Heights, knowing that the near-mad Hindley would not refuse his money, and swindles him out of the property by buying up the mortgage to support Hindley's alcoholism. He marries Edgar's sister Isabella, whom he hates and abuses, and fathers a sickly, irritable son, Linton Heathcliff, whom he contrives to marry Cathy and Edgar's daughter, Catherine. Knowing that Linton will die young--and doing his part to help!--and that Edgar's home Thrushcross Grange will pass to him, Heathcliff becomes the owner of both of his rivals' estates.

It is difficult to describe how cruelly Heathcliff goes about this. He cares about no one but the dead Catherine, and terrorizes everyone else, including his own wife and son. And yet Heathcliff and Catherine's relationship is the most spiritually powerful thing in the entire novel. Attempts to cast Heathcliff's actions in a moral--specifically, Christian--light nearly always come off as weak, and God never seems nearly as powerful as Heathcliff. As the young Heathcliff says to his nurse Nelly, "God won't have the satisfaction that I shall" when Hindley is punished. It is difficult to call Heathcliff a villain because the moral and spiritual compass of Wuthering Heights is centered, like everything else, on his relationship with Catherine.

In the end, the only thing that saves the two houses from utter destruction is a sort of spiritual elevation that Heathcliff experiences, whereby he feels himself closer to Catherine, and therefore also to death, and disinterested in what remains of an earthly world:

"It is a poor conclusion, is it not," he observed, having brooded a while on the scene he had just witnessed. "An absurd termination to my violent exertions? I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses, and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules, and when everything is ready, and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate off either roof has vanished! My old enemies have not beaten me--now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives--I could do it; and none could hinder me--But where is the use? I don't care for striking, I can't take the trouble to raise my hand!"

This is horrible, but it is right: We could imagine the entire territory of the novel being wiped off the face of the earth by a sweep of Heathcliff's hand, but the same intensity of love that sparked his anger calls him away from it.

Wuthering Heights endures because it is like a funhouse mirror toward our most worn ideas about romantic love: It leads us toward destiny; it elevates us spiritually; it is more powerful than what surrounds it; it will survive despite all obstacles. Here, in the earthly realm at least, all these things are true, but they make no one happy, not even Cathy and Heathcliff.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

I don't really enjoy reading Romeo and Juliet; if I didn't have to, I wouldn't. But this is one of the texts for the upcoming Shakespeare seminar at Columbia I'll be taking, along with The Taming of the Shrew and Henry V. The topic is "Becoming a Man," in what I suppose is a romantic context, otherwise I can't imagine why something like Romeo and Juliet would be preferable to Henry IV or Hamlet. (And for that matter, who exactly "becomes a man" in The Taming of the Shrew?) Not to mention the fact that Romeo never really graduates from a mewling little girl.

This time around I took notice of--even more than the last time I read it--the sharp contrast between Romeo's language when he speaks of Juliet and when he speaks of Rosaline. I am more convinced now than ever that Romeo's lovesickness at the beginning of the play is a Petrarchan fantasy that is more play-acting than true agony. Here, he talks of Rosaline's chastity:

Well, in that hit you miss: she'll not be hit
With Cupid's arrow, she hath Dian's wit;
And in strong proof of chastity armed,
From love's weak childish bow she lives uncharmed.
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide th' encounter of assailing eyes,
Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold.
O she is rich, in beauty only poor,
That when she dies, with beauty dies her store.

I get the strong sense that Rosaline's chastity is not the cause of Romeo's agony but rather the cause of his idealization of Rosaline. The style Romeo adopts cannot be divided from the tradition of loving from afar; if Rosaline were not chaste, she would not be an appropriate object of Romeo's romanticism. When Romeo and Juliet first meet, their words form a sonnet together, something that would have been impossible in the Petrarchan tradition because the lover remains always aloof. Romeo must learn what Juliet knows instinctively, that language cannot grasp true love:

Conceit, more rich in matter than in words,
Brags of his substance, not of ornament.
They are but beggars that can count their worth;
But my true love is grown to such excess,
I cannot sum up half my wealth.

In its way, Romeo and Juliet is an ode to the sexual act, which is the action that surpasses words and brings true communion. The perversity of courtly love is underlined when, at the end, Juliet becomes to Paris what Rosaline was to Romeo. Paris' indignation at Romeo's interruption of his "true love's rite" at Juliet's tomb is almost comical, and we know that he cannot seriously mean his promise that "[t]he obsequies that I for thee will keep / Nightly shall be to strew thy grave and weep." Though Benvolio remarks that Romeo's laments over Rosaline are out of date, I wonder if Romeo and Juliet doesn't represent the nail in the coffin of the courtly tradition--it certainly speaks more strongly to modern readers, all of whom know Juliet but probably have never heard of Laura.

I think a case could be made that Romeo and Juliet on the whole is deeply critical of traditions, and that the ancient Capulet-Montague feud is another such example. Perhaps Romeo and Juliet would have been more loved in my class if I had been able to show my students the extent to which the old poison the young, and freedom means breaking free from one's elders.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Last Post by Ford Madox Ford

It had been obvious to her for a long time that God would one day step in and intervene for the protection of Christopher. After all Christopher was a good man -- a rather sickeningly good man. It is, in the end, she reluctantly admitted, the function of God and the invisible Powers to see that a good man shall eventually be permitted to settle down to a stuffy domestic life... even to chaffering over old furniture. It was a comic affair -- but it was the sort of affair that you had to admit. God is probably -- and very rightly -- on the side of the stuffy domesticities.

Graham Greene called The Last Post a mistake and omitted from his collected edition of the Parade's End novels (1 2 3), operating according to what seem to have been Ford's express wishes. I am not sure I agree with Ford and his protege, but the purpose of this novel does remain unclear. The last time we saw Christopher Tietjens, he was celebrating Armistice Day, having decided once and for all to abandon the income of Groby, his ancestral home, and to take up with his would-be mistress, Valentine Wannop. It was an awfully sweet ending for a series about a perpetually tortured man, and it's hard to shake the feeling that Ford couldn't resist adding a dash of bitters:

It had come through to Marie Leonie partly then and partly subsequently that Christopher's wife had turned up at Christopher's empty house that was in the Square only a few yards away. They had gone back late at night probably for purposes of love and had found her there. She had come for the purpose of telling them that she was going to be operated on for cancer so that with their sensitive natures they could hardly contemplate going to bed together at that moment.

In the first novel, Father Consett, the confessor of Tietjens' vindictive wife Sylvia, warns that if Christopher ever leaves her for another woman, "[t]he world will echo with her wrongs." In this way, Ford's impulse to write a fourth novel makes sense; Sylvia Tietjens would never consent to simply let Tietjens and Valentine live together apart from her torments. And true to form, on Armistice Day she invents a lie about cancer to keep them apart.

The most perplexing thing about The Last Post, however, is that it's barely about Tietjens at all. The strongest character is his brother, Mark, who has had some sort of seizure brought on by the news that England has refused to follow the Germans into their own territory. Mark maintains that his paralysis is voluntary--he echoes Iago's insistence that "from this time forth I never will speak word"--but whether that is true is never clear. The narrative perspective bounces from Mark to his recently married mistress, Marie Leonie, to Valentine, but Christopher is away on an aeroplane, gone to Groby to convince Sylvia's tenants there not to tear down the symbolic Great Groby Tree.

But Sylvia of course, is at Christopher's house, in order to "torture that girl out of her mind. That was why she was there now. She imagined Valentine under the high roof suffering tortures because she, Sylvia, was looking down over the hedge." She brings with her (for reasons that are never all that clear to me) a murderers' row of the series' villains: General Campion, Tietjens' godfather who sends him to the front because of Sylvia's mud-slinging; Ruggles, who does much of Sylvia's dirt-digging; Edith Ethel Duchemin, who hates Tietjens because her husband owes him money; Mrs. de Bray Pape, the uncouth American who is renting Groby (and believes herself the spiritual descendant of Louis XIV's consort); even Michael Mark, Tietjens' son, whose dubious parentage tortures Tietjens. All this leads to a very tense climax in which Sylvia, at the head of her phalanx of scoundrels, confronts a defenseless Valentine. But, because this is Ford, things do not turn out as they seem that they will:

[Sylvia said, "]They can all, soon, call you Mrs. Tietjens. Before God, I came to drive those people out... But I wanted to see how it was you kept him..."

Sylvia Tietjens was keeping her head turned aside, drooping. Hiding a tendency to tears, no doubt. She said to the floor.

"I say again, as God hears me, I never thought to harm your child. His child... But any woman's... Not harm a child... I have a fine one, but I wanted another... with its littleness... It's the riding has done it..." Someone sobbed!

Sylvia, having come intent to destroy Valentine psychologically, discovers that Valentine is pregnant with Tietjens' child and cannot do it. Perhaps the corruption of an innocent thing is too far; perhaps it is the realization that Valentine has succeeded where she could not, not just in keeping him, but in giving him a child that is doubtlessly his, and a family. I wish that I knew what that last phrase--it's the riding has done it--meant, but I have not been able to figure it out.

Is The Last Post a failure? On one hand, it ties up the loose end of Sylvia, who broods over the happy ending of A Man Could Stand Up--, and I think it does so appropriately. On the other hand, there's something discordant about packaging Christopher Tietjens away in an aeroplane to finish the tetralogy which is expressly his. I am reminded of Rabbit Remembered, but in that case Rabbit was dead, and the novella was written in the spirit of mourning. The Last Post is a novel of mourning too, but for an English culture that has perished with the war (like Groby Great Tree, which takes out half Groby wall with it).

Tietjens' absence, however, provides us--with what, exactly? More space for someone like Marie Leonie, Mark Tietjens' wife, who gives us the French perspective on the end of World War I, I suppose. Marie Leonie is a well-developed, intriguing character, and so is the "paralyzed" Mark, but they aren't Tietjens, and so the experience of reading The Last Post is like ordering the steak and being served the beef consomme.

But--then again--these books are wonderful and it's wonderful to have more of them. I am a little sad to have done with them, but I have the upcoming BBC adaptation to look forward to, scripted by none other than Tom Stoppard. It will probably be the best five hours of television that anyone has ever seen, ever.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici

Since the passages I quoted in the last chapter from Mallarme, Hofmannsthal, Kafka and Beckett all fall between the years 1850 and 1950 the temptation is strong to date Modernism in that hundred-year period. This is certainly when it flourished and when its manifestations were so prevalent that no-one could ignore it. The danger in seeing it like that, though, is that Modernism is thereby turned into a style, like Mannerism or Impressionism, and into a period of art history, like the Augustan or the Victorian age, and therefore as something that can be clearly defined and is safely behind us. I, on the other hand, want to argue that Modernism needs to be understood in a completely different way,as the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities, and therefore as something that will, from now on, always be with us. Seen this way, modernism, I would suggest, becomes a response by artists to that 'disenchantment of the world' to which cultural historians have long been drawing our attention.

This is the central insight of What Ever Happened to Modernism? and the one that strikes me as the most undeniably persuasive. By defining Modernism as a crucial mental shift and not an arbitrary period, Josipovici transcends the petty boundary-setting of the academic.

Here is the following argument, as best I can understand it: Modernism is the expression of the mental crisis that comes from the loss of reliable standards of truth. Art is not a mirror to the world, but a set of signs and symbols that describe it--what may seem a quibbling difference, but quite important. The Modernist, Josipovici argues, is all too aware that art can never really reach its goal, which is to describe the experience of life, and so the old realism games begin to seem disingenuous. The real artist then has only one recourse, which is to create art that is cognizant of this tension:

The remarks of Kierkegaard and Sartre help explain why so many Modernist writers have been at pains to stress that their fictions are only fictions, not reality. Not in order to play games with the reader or to deny the reality of the world, as uncomprehending critics charge them, but on the contrary, out of a profound sense that they will only be able to speak the truth about the world if the bad faith of the novel, its inevitable production of plot and meaning, is acknowledged and, somehow, 'placed.'

In supporting this argument, Josipovici is both broad (he includes examples from visual art and music, not just literature) and deep (he goes back as far as Cervantes and Albrecht Durer, who he claims as Modernists). I am delighted to report that he repeats Erich Heller's idea that the problem of poetry began with the Marburg Colloquy, where Protestant reformers were unable to compromise between the various truth claims of the eucharist, though he fails to note that Ford placed this moment at the heart of The Good Soldier when Heller was three years old.

Furthermore, he complains that the modern novel--especially the English one--fails to acknowledge this shift, preferring to pretend as if this crisis of conscience has never happened. His focus on the contemporary, however, I find to be the weakest part of his argument. At one point he presents for criticism a set of quotations from contemporary writers like Iris Murdoch and Philip Roth (!) which are meant to represent the kind of bread-and-butter realism that ought to be banished to the pre-Enlightenment, but as a critical method this is uncharitable at best. Does Josipovici really think that it is impossible to find a similarly banal block of text from In Search of Lost Time? Like in Wood's essays, John Updike and Graham Greene are presented as betes noires, which tells me that Josipovici has never read Greene's short story "Under the Garden," which would have fit nicely between the bit on Beckett and the bit on Kafka.

I come back to an anecdote Josipovici dregs up about Francis Bacon and his correspondent, David Sylvester:

Abstract painters, [Bacon] suggests, only have allegiance to the artwork, and to themselves. Hence the work will lack what he feels to be a vital ingredient. Sylvester, however, is puzzled: 'If abstract paintings are no more than pattern-making, how do you explain the fact that there are people like myself who have some sort of visceral response to them at times as they have to figurative work?'

Bacon's response is, "Fashion." But I do not see why this claim can't be made in reverse--while what Josipovici is saying is quite persuasive, how does it deal with the very real response many of us have to the psychological fineness of Rabbit, Run or A House for Mr. Biswas? It is not very pleasant to have one's favorite works trucked off because they fail to meet art's new "responsibilities," a phrase which seems unfittingly draconian.

At the end, Josipovici makes this concession, saying, "But I realise that this may be largely because of who and what I am." Of course, he does this only at the end and really quite reluctantly, but it is true: the final arbiter of artistic quality remains, infuriatingly, personal taste.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

The Taming of the Shrew makes me, as it has made many readers over the years, deeply uncomfortable. The story of a woman (Katherina) being tamed by a man (Petruchio) so that she will become more docile and obedient is inherently repellent, and modern audiences are unsurprisingly ill at ease with sentiments such as these:

PETRUCHIO: But for my bonny Kate, she must with me.
Nay, not look big, nor stamp, nor stare, nor fret;
I will be master of what is mine own.
She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything.

I sincerely doubt that one could write a play in the 21st century in which a man calls his wife his "household stuff" and not be perceived as a villain. This is tempered somewhat by the undeniable fact that, like Benedict and Beatrice, Kate and Petruchio are well-matched for each other because they share an affinity for a kind of verbal (and physical) sparring as flirtation:

PETRUCHIO: Come, come, you wasp. I' faith, you are too angry.

KATHERINA: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.

PETRUCHIO: My remedy is then to pluck it out.

KATHERINA: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.

PETRUCHIO: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting?

KATHERINA: In his tongue.

PETRUCHIO: Whose tongue?

KATHERINA: Yours, if you talk of tales. And so farewell.

PETRUCHIO: What, with my tongue in your tail Nay, come again,
Good Kate. I am a gentleman.

Zing! It is clear to me that, despite Petruchio's mercenary intentions and Kate's unwillingness to be controlled, they have an affection for each other. (Kate, for example, seems to be genuinely upset when it seems as if Petruchio will leave her at the altar.) But try as I might I cannot close-read away the thought that Petruchio, who "tames" Kate by withholding food from her and keeping her from her family, is awfully cruel. Bloom sees a strong undercurrent of irony in Kate's final speech, in which she extols the virtue of submissiveness, and believes that The Shrew is actually the story of how Kate tames Petruchio by letting him think he's getting what he wants. If you can find that in here, let me know:

Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband.
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?

This speech is so over the top that the temptation to read it as ironic is very strong, but it seems to me that treating earnestness as irony becomes an unwise critical loop by which we question whether anyone really believes anything. If Kate does not believe this, she has learned this lesson deeply and is too cunning to provide any wink to the audience.

Of course, Shakespeare never was a moralizer, and attempts to tease out the moral prescription of The Shrew are short-sighted. The feminists will find it to be feminist, and the misogynists will find it to be misogynist. As a comedy, it is not the best--too much time spent on the idiot romance between Kate's sister Bianca and the disguised Lucentio, for one--and I wonder if, had it been a greater play, such a question would have occupied us less.