Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

Fiction seeks out truth.  Granted, it seeks a poetic kind of truth, universals not easily translatable into moral codes.  But part of our interest as we read is in learning how the world works; how the conflicts we share with the writer and all other human beings can be resolved, if at all; what values we can affirm, and, in general, what the moral risks are.  The writer who can't distinguish truth truth from a peanut-butter sandwich can never write good fiction.  What he affirms we deny, throwing away his book in indignation; or if he affirms nothing, not even our oneness in sad or comic helplessness, and insists that he's perfectly right to do so, we confute him by closing his book.  Some bad men write good books, admittedly, but the reason is that when they're writing they're better men than when they beat their wives and children.  When he writes, the man of impetuous bad character has time to reconsider.  The fictional process helps him say what he might not have said that same night in the tavern.

I just started teaching Creative Writing this year, and it's been a real mixed bag.  I decided to start with poetry, and for some students, the results were terrific.  Many were already accomplished poets, but the best moments are when mediocre or unpracticed young writers stumble through experiment and practice into arresting lines or stanzas.  Others have such a disinterest in poetry I think I may have lost them, though I hope that our upcoming unit writing short fiction will help them reengage with writing.

To that end, I've been reading some books on writing like John Gardner's The Art of Fiction and Ann Lamott's Bird by Bird.  Lamott's book is mostly inspirational, an encouragement to writing in the face of all the things that discourage it.  Gardner's is more of a survey of the nature of fiction, and neither are exactly practical.  These books all struggle, I think, because of how difficult it is to speak to each writer at their particular moment; a lot of Gardner's advice seemed obvious to me, and much of it seemed very strange.

The Art of Fiction has a whiff of mothballs to it: For one, Gardner is pretty devoted to the most traditional notion of fiction as an imitation of life and dismissive, even as he claims he isn't, of the kind of "metafiction" that has preoccupied the postmodernists of the past seventy-odd years.  He claims, perhaps rightly, that only those who have mastered fiction are able to write self-conscious metafiction effectively, but you get the sense that he thinks it's probably a mistake, and has little notion of why those writers find metafiction the only possible mode in their particular historical moment.  Elsewhere, there's the unfortunate patina of chauvinism, as when he throws up his hands at the sad fact that the English language prioritizes male pronouns.  He describes as brilliant a treatment of a student's novel he had heard, in which a Native American scholar unwittingly takes a position in an "Indian Studies" department--as in, East Indian--and has to muddle through pretending to be from Delhi, or something.  In a more general way, his insistence that fiction relies most importantly on the accumulation of details that make you feel as if you were really somewhere else seems shortsighted and of another time.

But it's worth embracing, to an extent, the tradition articulated by Gardner here, and not forgetting why those narratives have been so powerful in the first place.  His chapters on crafting individual sentences are exceedingly useful, and would probably help a lot of today's writers whose popular blandness seems like a flaw on the most fundamental level.  Most useful to me were the series of exercises in the back of the book, many of which I'm definitely going to use: "Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder.  Do not mention the murder."  Now, that's fun, and I have an inkling it will be a satisfying exercise for a bunch of high schoolers whose idea of fiction always operates at the highest pitch of drama.  But we'll see.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Mr. Fortune by Sylvia Townsend Warner

He should say something like: "Your god, Lueli, was only made of wood, perishable and subject to accidents, like man who is made of flesh.  He is now burnt, and his ashes are lost among the other ashes.  Now will you not see that my God is a better God than yours, and turn to Him?  For my God is from everlasting, even though the earth shake He cannot be moved."

Yes, that was the sort of thing to say, but he felt a deep reluctance to saying it.  It seemed ungentlemanly to have such a superior invulnerable God, part of that European conspiracy which opposes gun-boats to canoes and rifles to bows and arrows, which showers death from the mountains upon Indian villages, which rounds up the negro into an empire and tricks him of his patrimony.

Timothy Fortune is an Anglican missionary who sets out to convert the Polynesian island of Fanua.  The islanders welcome him with open arms; they are charmed by his quirky ways: his apprehension around the scantily-clad women, the strange music he plays on his harmonium.  But even though he stays many years, he gains only one convert, a youth named Lueli, and Lueli's soul is constantly a source of anxiety for Mr. Fortune.  When he discovers Lueli's god--a small wooden idol that is "his" god in the way that all the islanders have their own hand-carved gods--at an altar in the forest, he despairs for his failure to convert Lueli properly.

Mr. Fortune--actually, Mr. Fortune's Maggot, the first of two slim novels collected in this edition--begins as a particularly sharp parody of European colonialism.  Mr. Fortune bumbles around the island, as unaware of his own priggishness as only a condescending white missionary can be.  He notes that Polynesians, even Lueli, have trouble conceiving of Jesus because they are "not sorrowful enough," without, of course, thinking through the logic of that statement.  And yet Lueli, his young protege, is attached to Mr. Fortune with great ardor and intimacy and accepts his teaching with great equanimity, even when the subject is a particularly bungled lesson in geometry.  What I expected, having heard a little about this book from Brent, was a barely sublimated gay romance, a love which Mr. Fortune represses through his own staunch religion.  And it's not exactly not that.  But while Mr. Fortune's blindness is played for laughs, the intimacy between him and Lueli never is.

About two-thirds of the way through, the novel changes in a way that is both obvious and subtle.  A volcano tremor destroys Mr. Fortune's house, crushing everything inside, including the idol that he had demanded Lueli burn.  Lueli's spirit dies with his own god, and he becomes despondent.  But remarkably, Mr. Fortune's faith dies also, and in the passing of a heartbeat he gives up his Anglican mission for good.  What follows is a meditation on love that took my breath away, a long-formulating realization that Mr. Fortune must leave the island to preserve Lueli, whom he loves above all things:

"I loved him," he thought.  "From the moment I set eyes on him I loved him.  Not with what is accounted a criminal love, for though I set my desire on him it was a spiritual desire.  I did not even love him as a father loves a son, for that is a familiar love, and at the times when Lueli most entranced me it was as a being remote, intact, and incalculable.  I waited to see what his next movement would be, if he would speak or no--it was the not knowing what he would do that made him dear.  Yes, that was how I loved him best, those were my happiest moments; when I was just aware of him, and sat with my sense awaiting him, not wishing to speak, not wishing to make him notice me until he did so of his own accord because no other way would it be perfect, would it be by him.  And how often, I wonder, have I let it be just like that?  Perhaps a dozen times, perhaps twenty times all told, perhaps, when all is put together, for an hour out of the three years I had with him.  For man's will is a demon that will not let him be.  It leads him to the edge of a clear pool; and while he sits admiring it, with his soul suspended over it like a green branch and dwelling in its own reflection, will stretches out his hand and closes his fingers upon a stone--a stone to throw into it."

Guh. I'd give my hands to have written a paragraph as perfect as that one.  It reveals something shockingly true about love: when it is real it comes out of a recognition of difference, seeing someone as a discrete person outside of yourself, and yet a difference that affirms its essential similarity.  How crazy it is to encounter another being as full of spirit as yourself, yet so alien.  And the same feeling produces a revulsion, a kind of anger.  Like Oscar Wilde says, "Each man kills the thing he loves."  But Wilde's pithiness is no match for Warner's lyrical elaboration, I think.

Warner felt so attached to Mr. Fortune that she revisited him years later in a smaller standalone novella called "The House of the Salutation."  Mr. Fortune, having left Fanua, travels miserably around the world until he comes upon a widow living with a handful of servants in an old rundown mansion in the Argentine Pampas.  The widow seizes upon Mr. Fortune's appearance with a love that is more recognizably romantic than the one he had with Lueli, but no less strange or reverent.  This angers the widow's young heir, who suspects Mr. Fortune as having designs on the estate.  "The heart is like a dog," she says.  "It barks, and lies down again."  The novella is strange and dense, without the touch of irony that lightens Mr. Fortune's Maggot, but touching, because Warner apparently could not forsake her apostate priest and was compelled to provide him, at last, with love.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Solitude, says the moon shell. Every person, especially every woman, should be alone sometime during the year, some part of each week, and each day. How revolutionary that sounds and how impossible of attainment. 

My grandmother gave each woman in our family a copy of Gift from the Sea at Christmas two years ago. The front leaf of my copy is inscribed with a message recommending that I read the book every five years. My grandmother has read it in each new stage of her life and claims that it has provided her with new wisdom and comfort with each re-reading. The volume is a series of essays, written on a beach vacation. Each piece centers around a different shell and each is a meditation on a different facet of Lindbergh's life. The wisdom is a little outdated and a little on the nose; this is clearly the philosophical treatise of a wife and mother of the 1950s. Lindbergh entreats women to carve out space, time, and an identity for themselves separate from their roles as wives and mothers. It goes beyond A Room of One's Own to include all women--not just writers and thinkers--in the quest for some small modicum of independence.

I think I learned more about my grandmother by reading this than I did about the world or myself. She married at 21, left college to start a life with my grandfather, had four children before she turned 30, and generally lived a life devoted to her children, husband, and grandchildren. She was an artist who loved the water, and I saw her on every page. I bristled a little at the narrow role Lindbergh saw for women and tininess of the scope of freedom she was advocating for, but I also understand that even this felt like a big ask at the time.

I don't know that I can recommend this to modern readers. It felt stale and obvious and, if I'm being honest, somewhat anti-feminist by today's standards, but I enjoyed getting a glimpse into the inner life of my grandmother, a woman who has been generous with her love and advice over the course of my life but relatively reticent when it came to sharing her own struggles.

As a side note, I didn't realize until I had finished reading that Anne Morrow Lindbergh was Charles Lindbergh's long-suffering wife. I went down an addicting Wikipedia rabbit hole learning about their very complicated marriage, and it cast her reflections in a new light.

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

The gentleman waiting gave him a start, though all he was doing was sitting by the cold fireplace. Perhaps it was his dæmon, a beautiful silvery spotter leopard, or perhaps it was his dark, saturnine expression: in any event, Malcolm felt daunted, and very young and small. Asta became a moth.
La Belle Sauvage is the first in Pullman's newest trilogy, a companion to His Dark Materials. This first installation begins before The Golden Compass when Lyra is a baby, and Pullman introduces us to Malcolm, the son of innkeepers and Lyra's fierce defender. It's been 17 years since the final chapter in His Dark Materials was published, and I was concerned that Pullman, at 71, might have lost his touch. My concerns were utterly unfounded.

Pullman's imagination is as rich and captivating as ever. He transitions effortlessly from cozy fireside pub scenes to heart-pounding quests down flooded rivers, and he can build tension and suspense artfully. Each of his books includes a scene that is so dark that it disqualifies the book as purely YA fiction, and La Belle Sauvage had several, one so creepy, I had to stop reading.

I enjoyed hearing Pullman's take on male pre-adolescence (the earlier trilogy hinges on Lyra's coming of age), and Malcolm makes a great hero: smart, reflective, brave, but also sensitive in that way that boys who have not fully become teenagers still allow themselves to be. His love for Lyra is immediate, deep, and incredibly endearing; he's a kid and knows nothing about babies or how to care for them, but he's sold from the start.

Pullman is never overly preachy but tends to slip in some social critique (usually of religion), and in this volume, it came in the form of the League of St. Alexander--an organization named for a child who turned his parents in for being nonbelievers, sentencing them to death. The League recruits at Malcolm's school, giving children the authority to report not just their parents, but also their teachers and peers for suspicious behavior. It's one of the first hints that things are going to take a turn, and it's perfectly creepy.

Overall, this reminded me how much I enjoyed Pullman's writing. It's definitely geared to a younger audience, but it's serious and dense, and it treats young readers like the full humans they are. The next two volumes pick up where His Dark Materials lets off. I can't wait!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Lectures on Don Quixote by Vladimir Nabokov

. . . Don Quixote cannot be considered a distortion of those romance but rather a logical continuation, with the elements of madness and shame and mystification increased.

One might be forgiven for reading Mr. Nabokov's Lectures on Don Quixote and being unclear about what he thought of the novel. On the one hand, he testily chastises Cervantes for horribly bad descriptions of scenery, plot-holes, and poorly thought-out resolutions.

On the other, however, we have this, the closing lines to the lectures:

He had ridden for three hundred and fifty years through the jungles and tundras of human thought--and he has gained in vitality and stature. We do not laugh at him any longer. His blazon is pity, his banner is beauty. He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant. The parody has become a paragon.

Which is it then? Was Cervantes a genius or a fraud? Both, it seems. While critical of much of Cervantes's novel, Nabokov is quick to recognize the genius and beauty of Don Quixote. Nabokov feels that Quixote is a work of genius that holds up what would otherwise be a mediocre novel. In fact Quixote's character makes this novel not just good, but great.

There are two reasons to read this book. First, much like the characters bemoaning Quixote's death, when I finished the novel, I did not feel ready to say goodbye to the character of Quixote. Inspiring me to go through a not-subtle obsession with Quixote. See Exhibit A (photograph of carved pumpkin). Reading the Lectures gave me a chance to revisit and continue thinking about Quixote and what the novel means, or why it feels so meaningful.

Second, Nabokov's genius is, itself, on display here. So, the Lectures also present an opportunity to see how he tackles literary analysis. We get to see his jokes, his asides (the book is liberally footnoted to call to attention any speaking notes that Nabokov wrote for himself), and what themes or patterns Nabokov saw in the novel. Or, take, this, my favorite passage from the work:
It seems to me that the chance Cervantes missed was to have followed up the hint he had dropped himself and to have Don Quixote meet in battle, in a final scene, not Carrasco but the fake Don Quixote of Avellaneda. All along we have been meeting people who were personally acquainted with the false Don Quixote . We are as ready for the appearance of the fake Don Quixote as we are of Dulcinea. We are eager for Avellanda to produce his man. How splendid it would have been if instead of that hasty and vague last encounter with the disguised Carrasco, who tumbles our knight in a jiffy, the real Don Quixote had fought his crucial battle with the false Don Quixote! In that imagined battle who would have been the victor--the fantastic lovable madman of genius, or the fraud, the symbol of robust mediocrity? My money is on Avellaneda's man, because the beauty of it is that, in life, mediocrity is more fortunate than genius. In life it is the fraud that unhorses true valor.
Exhibit A
Here, Nabokov cannot help being himself--a writer--and improving on Cervantes's text. I have to admit, I prefer Nabokov's version, and there will always be a part of me that pretends his version is canon. (Incidentally: this passage is a good example of Nabokov's criticism of the novel. Nabokov's ending is poignant, parallels themes that run throughout Don Quixote and is itself ripe with meaning. Cervantes's version is...abrupt and almost feels like it was written because it just felt like it was time to wrap things up).

But then, who is Nabokov to criticize? It was Cervantes's genius, and not Nabokov's, who birthed Quixote.
As Cervantes would undoubtedly point out, it is not so easy to blow up a dog.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

I thought about the baby that everybody wanted dead, and saw it very clearly.  It was in a dark, wet place, its head covered with great O's of wool, the black face holding, like nickels, two clean black eyes, the flared nose, kissing-thick lips, and the living, breathing silk of black skin.  No synthetic yellow bangs suspended over marble-blue eyes, no pinched nose and bowline mouth.  More strongly than my fondness for Pecola, I felt a need for someone to want the black baby to live--just to counteract the universal love of white baby dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals.

The first time I read The Bluest Eye, I found it to be pretty scattered, if I recall correctly.  It dwells in digressions, piles symbols upon symbols, often in a way that I found distracted from the central images of white baby dolls and blue eyes that give the novel its title.  Among other things, Morrison commits a cardinal literary sin by writing an important character--the mystic fraudster Soaphead Church, who "grants" Pecola her blue eyes--into the very end of the book, where he works the action necessary for the climax.

But Soaphead is such a fascinating character, I quickly brushed that sin aside.  Reading it a second time, those flaws, if that's what they are, failed to appear.  Because I knew the climax and Soaphead were coming, it freed me up to ignore the narrative movement of the book and really appreciate how painstakingly crafted each disparate part of the book is: Soaphead, the interludes that track the life of Pecola's mother and father, all of it.  Each of these stories is so perfectly wrought and self-contained they could exist outside of the novel without losing anything, though they also provide its halting, irregular character.  Morrison risks distracting from the intense, immense tragedy that is the story of Pecola, a young girl haunted in ways she cannot understand by the idea of physical beauty in America, but she does so out of a deep need to give each character their due.  That goes double for the worst ones, like Cholly, Pecola's father, who rapes and impregnates her in a fit of trauma-induced delusion.

Reading it a second time also allowed me to focus on just how tragic Pecola's story is.  She's an easier character to pity than to love, but perhaps that is in keeping with the tragedy: Pecola, unable to love herself, rebuffs the reader's ability to love her as well.  To a child like this, who obsesses with Mary Jane candy because of the Shirley Temple-esque white character on the wrapper, who sees the way her own mother prefers the little white girl whose house she keeps, we might say: you're beautiful the way you are!  But Pecola is not really beautiful, because the social environment represses her so heavily that anything beautiful in her has no chance to grow.  Her obsession with whiteness and with blue eyes becomes so all-consuming that it seems to carve her out from the inside.  This sad narrative gets its fullest expression in the baby that is stillborn, that "everybody wanted dead," because its mere existence would be an embodiment of the social ugliness that engendered it.  Pecola is, in a sense, as stillborn as her baby.

One thing that The Bluest Eye shows perfectly is just how difficult it is to navigate the pressures of beauty because they exist apart from the discrete actions of people.  Morrison is her own best reader and explicator, and she writes in the introduction about a friend who shared Pecola's desire for blue eyes: "Who told her?  Who made her feel that it was better to be a freak than what she was?  Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale?"  Those are good questions without good answers, which The Bluest Eye is smart enough not to offer.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Coming to my Senses by Alice Waters

 I was very skinny and didn't like to eat much. The sandwiches my mother made me, things like peanut butter and bananas on whole wheat bread, were always dry, so sometimes I traded for my friends' cheese and bologna sandwiches on white bread. 
I really, really wanted to like this book. Coming to my Senses ends on opening night at Chez Panisse, Waters' world-famous restaurant, and it traces her path to that fateful evening starting with her childhood in New Jersey and Michigan. It follows her to L.A., Santa Barabara, Berkeley, and Paris, and gives a glimpse of activist life in the Bay Area in the late sixties. I love food, especially Berkeley food and French food; I find Alice Waters fascinating (if a little self-absorbed), and I was really hoping for a treatise on the slow food movement, or at least some good food writing. Neither came through.

The biggest issue was the writing. Even though I had high hopes, I found myself continually distracted by her awkward, almost childlike syntax, and long, italicized digressions. The quote above was the most interesting one I could find, and I only picked it because the thought of a young Alice Waters eating a bologna sandwich is entertaining. She seems to have used two ghostwriters (they are effusively thanked in the acknowledgments), but I am at a loss as to what they or her editors did to tame her stream of consciousness. Much of the book reads like what my high schoolers produce in their early college essay drafts: choppy statements of fact describing things that happened to them and awkward, superficial reflections on those events. Even though Waters provides anecdotes from decades of her life, she comes off as flat and uninteresting because the writing is so stiff.

I've always struggled with Waters' philosophy on food: that we all should be eating slow, local food; that all it takes is a taste of a "perfect peach" to win someone over to growing their own produce in their backyard. Everything else I'd read of hers wildly oversimplified the underlying issues of poverty and access that affect our national food culture, and I was hoping that this memoir, since its format would allow for more thoughtful reflection, might delve into her philosophy in a more nuanced way. It did not, and I remain frustrated.

Overall, this is not a good use of anyone's time. Fans of food or Chez Panisse will not find much to like, and even ardent Waters fans won't get much more than a few poorly told stories.

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

On balance, most of the time, in the ordinary course of life, it was probably best to say what was in your heart, to share what was on your mind, to tell the people you loved that you loved them, to ask those you had harmed to forgive you and to confront those who had hurt you with the truth about the damage they had done. When it came to things that needed to be said, speech was always preferable to silence, but it was of no use at all in the presence of the unspeakable. 
Michael Chabon spent the last week of his grandfather's life sitting with him and listening to him tell, for the first time, his entire life story. Moonglow is the novelization of that life, but it retains the frame of the deathbed confession. Chabon brings his flair for storytelling but grounds the book in his grandfather's real life and experiences (the first line is: "This is how I heard the story"). We follow Chabon's grandfather through decades of marriage, multiple careers (many of which fail impressively), WWII occupied France, and a crusade to capture the alligator terrorizing the cats in his retirement community.

This felt much like all of Chabon's other novels: it's funny and sarcastic, filled with creative characters who all seem like they're just about to catch their break (but rarely do), and just enough of the touch of the absurd to make you raise an eyebrow. Moonglow has the added layer of strange intimacy that comes with chronicling the life of a loved one who you are getting to know along with your reader. Chabon refers to his grandfather only as "my grandfather," a phrasing that can feel awkward, especially in the chapters that deal with his earlier life, but it also adds to that same sense of intimacy and makes the whole novel feel like you're listening to Chabon speak it aloud.

The most haunting presence in the book is Chabon's grandmother, a French Jewish refugee who arrived in America at the tail end of the war with a daughter in tow. Her troubled but loving marriage to Chabon's grandfather and her slow unraveling are eerily portrayed, and the truth about her identity is artfully unveiled throughout the book.

Chabon does tiny details well, and he uses them throughout to give emotional depth to a man who has come off (at least to his grandchild) as stoic and silent for most of his life. My favorite comes from a model of a moon station he has built from discarded plastic bits and assorted model railroad sets--late in life Chabon's grandfather designed and built scaled models for NASA. A spray-painted coffee lid's hatch lifts to reveal a tiny family hidden below: figures representing Chabon's grandfather, grandmother, and mother. Even long after the death of his wife, he quietly and discreetly weaves her into the fabric of his life.

I often enjoy Chabon's work because it takes place in places I know and love (I especially loved Telegraph Avenue for its portrayal of the massive range of humanity living along a few miles stretched between Berkeley and Oakland). Place played a much smaller role in this novel, but the characters shined through and were more likable than I'm used to from him.

Count Magnus and Other Stories by M. R. James

So he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far.  What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and he declares, not the mouth of a human being.

M. R. James was a well-regarded Classical scholar who also happened to dabble in ghost stories. His stories are often described as "antiquarian," and they read exactly like the kind of story you might expect a Classical scholar to write.  The ghosts, ghouls, and monsters are often relics of a past age, accessed through a spooky artifact like an illuminated manuscript.  In one of the best stories, "The Mezzotint," the supernatural object is actually just a lithograph print depicting a country house, but the collector who acquires it notices that every time he looks at it a frightening shrouded figure has moved to a new spot in the picture, until he's made his way into the house and carried out an unsuspecting little boy.  They also take place against the backdrop of the stuffy world of Oxbridge; another story, "Casting the Runes," is all about a devious alchemist who uses his black magic to seek revenge on the scholar who refused to publish his monograph.  In another standout, "A School Story," a murdered man communicates with his murderer through his students' Latin exercises.

The best thing, I think, about James' stories, is how frightening and particular the various monsters are.  There's the mouth under the pillow above, but I also liked the monster from "Canon Alberic's Scrap Book," which has "[p]ale, dusky skin, covering nothing but bones and tendons of appalling strength; coarse black hairs, longer than ever grew on a human hand; nails rising from the ends of the fingers and curving sharply down and forward, grey, horny and wrinkled."  These disheveled ghouls are a perfect contrast to the gentility and decorum of James' professors and barristers and classicists.

My favorites are: "Number 13," in which the title hotel room appears at night and disappears during the day, housing a man who once made a deal with the devil to escape the hangman's noose, and the title story, "Count Magnus," about a medieval count who continues to hang out with demons long after his death.  Count Magnus is hardly ever seen, but the story is a masterwork of suspense.  Like most of the stories here, it's reported through several layers of hearsay, but that fails to dilute this image: "Also Anders Bjornsen was there, but he was dead.  And I tell you this about Anders Bjornsen, that he was once a beautiful man, but now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away from his bones."  Nice.  Happy Halloween, everyone!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Demian by Herman Hesse

Novelists when they write novels tend to take an almost godlike attitude toward their subject, pretending to a total comprehension of the story, a man's life, which they can therefore recount as God Himself might, nothing standing between them and the naked truth, the entire story meaningful in every detail.  I am as little able to do this as the novelist is, even though my story is more important to me than any novelist's is to him--for this is my story; it is the story of a man, not of an invented, or possible, or idealized, or otherwise absent figure, but of a unique being of flesh and blood.

Brent hates this book so much I just had to read it for myself.  Is it really that bad, or does Brent just have really bad taste?  The answer, as I expected, was a little bit of both.

We agree that Hesse's Demian starts out well: the narrator, Emil Sinclair, recounts a particular story of his childhood.  He makes up a story about stealing apples from an orchard to impress a local bully, Franz Kromer, which Kromer--clearly seeing through the lie--uses to blackmail Sinclair for months on end, pressing him into a kind of servanthood.  It's a great story, written in clever detail, and amplified with the ironic touch of a child's perspective and lack of understanding.  It's all the more interesting because of the inward agony it causes Sinclair, whose Manichaean view of the world is challenged by Kromer's cruelty.  If the world is divided into the good and the bad, has Sinclair's fib aligned him with the bad; with Cain instead of Abel?

But like Brent says, the beginning of the book is the high point.  Sinclair's agony is put to rest by his classmate Max Demian, who not only wards off Kromer but forces Sinclair to see the story of Cain and Abel--which operates as the principal symbol of the novel--in a different way:

"It's quite simple!  The first element of the story, its actual beginning, was the mark.  Here was a man with something in his face that frightened the others.  They didn't dare lay hands on him; he impressed them, he and his children.  We can guess--no, we can be quite certain--that it was not a mark on his forehead like a postmark--life is hardly ever as clear and straightforward as that.  It is much more likely that he struck people as faintly sinister, perhaps a little more intellect and boldness in his look than people were used to.  This man was powerful: you would only approach him with awe.  He had a 'sign.  You could explain this in any way you wished.  And people always want what is agreeable to them and puts them in the right.  They were afraid of Cain's children: they bore a 'sign.'  So they did not interpret the sign for what it was--a mark of distinction--but its opposite.  They said: 'Those fellows with the sign, they're a strange lot'--and indeed they were.  People with courage and character always seem sinister to the rest.  It was a scandal that a breed of fearless and sinister people ran about freely, so they attached a nickname and myth to these people to get even with them, to make up for the many times they had felt afraid--do you get it?

Cain, in this version, represents not the "dark side," but a rebuke to the Manichaean worldview that separates dark from light, bad from good, and right from wrong.  Demian becomes the story of Sinclair's long, slow education in this worldview, the development of his own "mark of Cain."  The God of the Bible is replaced by Abraxas, a pagan deity who represents a mixture of both God and Satan in one.  In literal terms, this manifests itself in Sinclair's slow disillusion in the structures of pre-war European society and his drift back toward the figures of Demian and his alluring, androgynous mother.  Gender becomes another binary to be deconstructed (which is, admittedly, anticipates a lot of our modern conversations) and Sinclair falls in love with Demian's mother precisely because she looks like Demian with a little bit of the feminine principle superadded.  These two run a cult in the mountains which Sinclair joins with great enthusiasm.

There's a lot of interesting ideas there--okay, one interesting idea--but the story itself becomes dull after Kromer is dispatched.  The conflict is no longer with petty bullies but with the antimetaphysical bourgeois worldview, which isn't exactly a gripping adventure.  I think Demian might be more compelling if it didn't point toward an ultimate conclusion that seems retrograde for us who are able to look back on the bloody twentieth century: Demian's mother insists that the upcoming war--World War I--will offer an opportunity for man to grow and change in the crucible of violence, and for individuals to transform themselves in to enlightened Demianesque supermen.  That kind of searching for meaning in violence may have been possible before, and even after, World War I, but not after World War II and the Holocaust.