Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Hothouse by the East River by Muriel Spark

The Hothouse by the East River is Muriel Spark's "New York" book, begun in the late sixties during the brief period of her life that she lived there, but not finished and published until after she moved to Rome. New York seems not to have agreed with her: According to Martin Stannard's biography, these 140 pages came excruciatingly slowly, were frequently put away to write other novels and then resumed. The book itself is fraught with anxiety, especially the anxiety of mental illness, and Spark's New York is a sort of cramped fever dream.

The main character, Elsa, is mentally ill, according to her husband and children. Therapy has been ineffective, and what's worse is that madness seems to be catching: One by one, the other characters realize that Elsa's shadow points in the wrong direction:

And Paul, still standing in the middle of the carpet, then looks at her shadow. He sees her shadow cast on the curtain, not on the floor where it should be according to the position of the setting sun from the window bay behind her, cross-town to the West Side. He sees her shadow, as he has seen it many times before, cast unnaturally. Although he has expected it, he turns away his head at the sight.

What Spark cannily does not point out is that every time this anomaly is pointed out, Elsa's shadow is pointing toward the East River. It is not the river that is important, but the East: Elsa's shadow points toward Europe, where she and her husband Paul once worked for a secret World War II program broadcasting British propaganda using German war defectors. Elsa suspects that one of these defectors, perhaps planning to kill them, has appeared in New York, posing as a shoe salesman.

This is the nature of Elsa's madness: she is stuck in time. Even in New York, her life revolves around her time in this secret program, it points backward--not only does her shadow symbolically reach toward it, but its backwardness suggests the reversal of the earth's path around the sun, and the reversal of time itself. Nothing is as real or relevant as this period of her life:

[Paul says,] "You did call me yesterday, you know. Don't you remember?"

"What has yesterday got to do with me?" she asks.

Time in Hothouse is the mirror-image of time in The Girls of Slender Means, where each individual moment is viewed as a single point in a long expanse: here, the expanse rests on a single point.

The themes are the same, then, but the approach is different: Hothouse is much more experimental, from the use of present tense to the loose absurdism, in which Spark isn't quite comfortable. I liked some of it, especially this moment, about one of Elsa's friends who breeds silkworms, keeping them in her bra for warmth:

Garven screams. His eyes are on the Princess's bosom. He screams. Under the protective folds of her breasts the Princess, this very morning, has concealed for warmth and fear of the frost a precious new consignment of mulberry leaves bearing numerous eggs of silkworms. They have hatched in the heat. The worms themselves now celebrate life by wriggling upon Princess Xavier's breast and causing Garven to scream.

But ultimately Hothouse is underserved by Spark's style, which is too brisk and controlled to really allow absurdism to flourish. The twist, too, is deeply unsatisfying--and perhaps you may figure it out yourself if you think on the image of worms, celebrating life.

What is more interesting to me is the relation of Hothouse to Spark herself, who once worked in a program like Elsa's, and who suffered from a form of madness brought on by diet pills. Spark thought that T. S. Eliot was embedding messages to her in his works and in newspapers; in Hothouse Elsa's husband Paul believes the German defector/shoe salesman is scrawling messages for them on the bottom of shoes. Are we permitted to draw the line, and wonder if Spark's own mental illness is connected to her time in the propaganda program, which made a business of messages and codes? Did Spark herself feel anchored to her wartime experiences? It does Hothouse no credit that these questions point toward a story far more interesting than the one she published.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

06 The Bread of Those Early Years-Heinrich Böll

Böll is known for his simplicity. In its original German, his books are often taught to German language learners because of that simple precise style. Truly lovely:

I sat down on the running board of Wickweber’s van, but instead of staring at the doorway I closed my eyes and looked for an instant into the darkroom, seeing the image of the only person who I know has never shouted, never bawled out another person—the only person whose devoutness I have found convincing: I saw Father. In front of him was the little blue wooden box we used to keep our dominoes in. the box is always stuffed with memo slips, all cut by Father to the same size from waste paper: paper is the only thing he hoards. From letters begun and then discarded, from copybooks not fully used up, he cuts out the blank parts, from wedding and death announcements he cuts off the unprinted parts, and as for those impressive circulars, those requests on deckle-edged paper to appear at some rally or other, those invitations on linen paper to do something for the cause of Liberty—this printed matter fills him with childish delight because each one yields him a least six memo slips, which he then deposits as treasures in the old domino box. He is obsessed by bits of paper, inserts them in his books, his wallet bulges with them, matters both important and trivial are all confided to these slips. I was forever coming across them when I was still living at home. “Button on undershorts” was written on one of them, on another “Mozart,” on another “pilageuse—pilage,” and once I found one saying: “On the streetcar I saw a face such as Jesus Christ must have had in His Agony.” Before going shopping he takes out the slips, riffles through them as though a deck of cards, lays them out like a game of solitaire, and arranges them in order of priority, forming little piles just as one separates aces, kings, queens, and jacks.

From all his books they stick halfway out between the pages, most of them yellowed and spotted because the books often lie about for months before he gets around to making use of the slips. During school vacations he collects them, rereads the passages he has made notes on, and sorts the slips, on most of which he has noted English and French words, grammatical constructions, idioms whose meaning is not fully clear to him till he has come across them two or three times. He carries on a voluminous correspondence about his discoveries, orders dictionaries to be sent to him, chicks back with his colleagues, and with gentle persistence needles the editors of reference works.

And there is one slip that he always carries in his wallet, one marked in red pencil and being particularly important, a memo that is destroyed after each of my visits buy is then soon written out again—the slip that says: “Have a talk with the boy.”

This passage takes me into his father’s house and life, but Böll does this with ease throughout the novella.

Simply put, The Bread is a love story that takes place in one day. Boy meets girl, boy falls in love, boy desires girl, girl acquiesces. Unlike modern writers, Böll doesn’t have his characters have sex or even kiss. They are proper post-war Germans, marriage is the only option. The flashbacks within the first person narration are digressions of beauty. Did I mention Bolaño was influenced by Böll?

Mr. Walter Fendrich is a washing machine repairman. He is completely afraid of famine and just as the title suggests, he loves bread because it was something he rarely had when growing (yes, it's a metaphor). In his search for his identity he has gone through several apprenticeships and quit all of them. He hates his current job but is excellent at diagnosing the problem, fixing it, and moving on. He can’t seem to do this in his real life. He makes good money, but still buys bread every chance he gets; he buys so much bread that most days he is forced to give it away.

Hedwig Muller is moving to the city to pursue a teaching career. They are united only by their hometown, but after finding her an apartment at her father’s request, he picks her up at the railway station. Fendrich decides right then, he is going to give up everything for this woman. It’s quite romantic really. He buys her flowers, postcards, cake, coffee, and of course, bread.

Monday, February 21, 2011

05 Bad Nature, Or With Elvis in Mexico-Javier Marías

I’m finding ways to cheat in this quest to 50. This may be a novella of 57 pages but it is a thing of beauty. Marías is an elaborator, with sentences of largess that somehow seem tight. Maybe the length of the book allows for this feeling.

“…vengeance is extremely wearying and hatred tends to evaporate, it’s a fragile ephemeral feeling, impermanent, fleeting, so difficult to maintain that it quickly gives way to rancor or resentment which are more bearable, easier to retrieve, much less virulent and somehow less pressing, while hatred is always in a tearing hurry, always urgent: I want him dead, bring me the son of bitch’s head, I want to see him flayed and his body smeared with tar and feathers, a carcass, skinned and butchered, and then he will be no one and this hatred that is exhausting me will end.”

Poetic right? And this is only the second half of the first paragraph, a paragraph with two sentences (I’ll stop with the sentence talk in subsequent posts, please forgive me, and fuck you Stanley Fish).

The short version: An old man reflects on his life of running from murderers, and it all started with Elvis’s hubris.

The long version: this story is of a Spaniard who has been hired to travel through Mexico in the 60’s as Elvis Presley’s translator during the production of Fun in Acapulco. I love that this book was translated from Spanish, yet it's about a Spanish translator. Dizzying. The narrator is Ruibérriz, but the Elvis entourage calls him Roy Berry since we Americans can’t get shit right. Brilliant.

Since Elvis can’t sit still for a second, he goes out every night with his translator and at least 3 others. If they fly to Mexico City only five people can fit in the plane and come along with him. If he parties in Acapulco he is followed by packs of EP monogrammed shirts and jackets. Ultimately they end up in the wrong bar in Mexico City and one among the Elvis crew starts dancing and insults a mean crew of Mexicans with his terrible moves and subsequent theft of a green silk handkerchief.

Then the party goes sour. While Roy is translating what the gauchos in the bar say, Elvis gets pissed and has Roy say some not so nice things in return. The Gauchos only know Spanish, but they don’t want to kill Elvis, so now Roy is the object of their ire, because, you know, the words came out of Roy’s mouth.

Marías does a lot well. The observations of Elvis as a person are unique and heartwarming. I can only imagine how cool Elvis really was, but Marías makes me believe that Elvis sings his way through each moment of the day, like an Elvis sing-a-long, but Elvis is really there singing your favorites.

Marías packs so much into this short work that I’m on the prowl for more from Spain’s greatest living author. Any suggestions?

04 Seven Plays Sam Shepard

This collection is all about two plays for most people: True West and Buried Child. I recommend Curse of the Starving Class too, but I’m just going to post about True West, it’s my favorite. Buried Child won the Pulitzer in ’79, so, you know, check this collection out.

While critically acclaimed, Shepard writes damn good works of drama. He creates perfect dialogue. He also writes gritty scenes that find a way of remaining real in a setting I like to imagine being surreal. The settings of his plays recreate various locales of the Southwestern United States. If you’ve ever been there, you know how enchanting and mysterious the land can be. Shepard captures that enchantment.
True West is about Lee and Austin. Austin, the younger brother, is staying at his mother’s house (she’s vacationing) trying to finish a screenplay for a Hollywood producer. Lee is a petty thief looking for an easy payday as he runs from his debts. There is little respect between these two. The fighting brother dynamic is thrown into full effect as Austin is trying to take care of the house and finish his play. The conversation centers around how each brother survives. Each thinks they have life figured out. Austin writes, and he lives on the straight and narrow. Lee has a life of crime, but he also has “true to life” stories to tell:
Austin: Nobody can disappear. The old man tried that. Look where it got him. He lost his teeth
Lee: He never had any money.
Austin: I don’t mean that. I mean his teeth! His real teeth. First he lost his real teeth, then he lost his false teeth. You never knew that did ya’? He never confided in you.
Lee: Nah, I never knew that.
Austin: You wanna’ drink? Yeah, he lost his real teeth one at a time. Woke up every morning with another tooth lying on the mattress. Finally, he decides he’s gotta’ get ‘em all pulled out but he doesn’t have any money. Middle of Arizona with no money and no insurance and every morning another tooth is lying on the mattress. So what does he do?
Lee: I dunno’. I never knew about that.
Austin: So he locates a Mexican dentist in Juarez who’ll do the whole thin for a song. And he takes off hitchhicking to the border.
Lee: Hitchhiking?
Austin: Yeah. So how long you thing it takes him to get to the border? A man his age?
Lee: I dunno.
Austin: Eight days it takes him. Eight days in the rain and the sun and every day he’s droppin’ teeth on the blacktop and nobody’ll pick him up ‘cause his mouth’s full a’ blood. So finally he stumbles into the dentist. Dentist takes his money and all his teeth. And there he is, in Mexico, with his gums sewed up and his pockets empty.
Lee: That’s it?
Austin: Then I go out to see him, see. I go out there and I take him out for a nice Chinese dinner. But he doesn’t eat. All he wants to do is drink Martinis outa’ plastic cups. And he takes his teeth out and lays ‘em on the table ‘cause he can’t stand the feel of ‘em. And we ask the waitress for one a’ those doggie bags to take the Chop Suey home in. So he drops his teeth in the doggie bag along with the Chop Suey. And then we go out to hit all the bars up and down the highway. Says he wants to introduce me to all his buddies. And in one a’ those bars, in one a’ those bars up and down the highway, he left that doggie bag with his teeth laying in the Chop Suey.
Lee: You never found it?
Austin: We went back but we never did find it. (pause) Now that’s a true story. True to life.
Ultimately Austin wants to write these true to life stories but never experienced anything himself. When the producer Saul comes to check on Austin’s screenplay, Lee pitches him a story and Saul decides that Lee’s story is what Austin should be writing. Through nine scenes, this play allows the brothers to believe they should be living the life of the other. Fighting is the only way to solve this problem. Actually, fighting is the only way to solve any problem. Three cheers for Sam!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

Rebecca is a great example of a novel that's far, far better than it has any right to be. Reading a plot summary makes it sound like hundreds of other Gothic novels: a young girl marries a rich, older man and moves to his beautiful but unnerving estate. Once there, she comes into contact with various strange and mysterious characters and eventually uncovers a terrible secret, one that changes our perspective on everything that came before. Boilerplate, right?

But such a summary misses two vitally important elements that set Rebecca apart from other genre exercises: first, Mme. du Maurier's sparkling but never--or at least rarely--melodramatic prose. If you've read much in the Gothic genre, you know how rare that is; she knows how to underplay the watershed moments for dramatic effect, and when to ramp up her description of the mundane until it becomes almost unbearably tense.

Secondly, du Maurier is a master plotter. Chris mentioned this in his review, but Rebecca isn't a genre exercise built around a twist; rather, it's winding narrative that maintains, and maybe even increases, its power once you know exactly how everything plays out. If I were to add a third element, I'd say the characters are remarkably well-drawn, but to say much more on that, or any, point might be to spoil the novel for those of you who haven't read it.

Rebecca seems to me, in some ways, the perfect novel of its type: engrossing and easily readable without sacrificing depth or beauty. There's more here than a simple mystery or romance--Du Maurier's musings about time and loss--always organic to the narrative--are moving and powerful, but don't get in the way of the story. If you haven't, you should read Rebecca.

Also, the line quoted above: one of the greatest opening lines of all time, right?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

How to Read a Sentence by Stanley Fish

"Some people are bird watchers," Stanley Fish tells us in the introduction to How to Read a Sentence, "others are celebrity watchers; still others are flora and fauna watchers. I belong to the tribe of sentence watchers." He is a sentence fetishist, determined not only to make us aware of the sublimity of the well-written sentence, but to deconstruct it for us so we might make our own. Fish, as a professor of law, has faculties finely tuned for this business.

Grammar and sentence-making, Fish says, are being taught in entirely the wrong way in our schools. Rote memorization of parts of speech (What the hell is a gerund, an English teacher at my school asked today) is ineffective and confusing. Instead, we must come to understand sentences as logical constructions made of forms, commonsense relationships between words and phrases that we more or less know intuitively. The key is imitation. For example, he takes this sentence by John Updike, about Ted Williams' home run in his last at bat in Fenway:

It was in the books while it was still in the sky.

...and dissects the way that "while" provides the "fulcrum of the sentence," and that on either side of that fulcrum are different registers (one literal, one less so) that must be reconciled, and then notes that we too can imitate this:

Here is my (relatively feeble) attempt: "It was in my stomach before it was off the shelf."

...and that by this imitation we may not create a masterpiece, but we expand our own ability to express the thoughts which are most vital to us.

It is unclear to me exactly who this book is written for--it seems most appealing to other sentence fetishists, who probably don't need Fish to explain much to them, though it offers some appeal in the way a trainspotter might be fascinated by watching a locomotive being repaired. It seems unlikely that anyone will go through the kind of exercises that Fish recommends, unless, of course, he or she happens to be a student in Fish's freshman comp class at Florida International. Probably its most appropriate audience is folks like me, sentence fetishists charged with the grammatical tutelage of America's future. (I would say also you, Danny, were it not true that you hate sentences.)

All told, the most fascinating aspect of How to Read a Sentence is the catalogue of great sentences that Fish marshals for his tinkering. I am pleased to say that Fish includes quite a bit from The Good Soldier, "nearly every sentence of which merits a place in this book." In a recent contest on Slate, Fish judged the best of reader-submitted sentences, of which I am pretty fond of this one, from the Bible:

Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred; so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. (2 Samuel 13:15, RSV)

And without further ado, here is, while not My List of Greatest Sentences, perhaps My List of Greatest Sentences That I Chanced Upon While Leafing Through my Bookshelf for This Review:

Updike, describing the way men “bump” into women in Rabbit, Run:

Either they give, like a plant, or scrape, like a stone.

Ford, in The Good Soldier:

But still, she listened to you and took in what you said, which, since the record of humanity is a record of sorrows, was, as a rule, something sad.

Forster, talking about newlyweds in A Room with a View:

Ah! it was worth while; it was the great joy that they had expected, and countless little joys of which they had never dreamt.

Austen, being snarky in Persuasion:

The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before.

What are your favorites?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Imagination has been steadily losing prestige in American life, it seems to me, for a long time."

"I am speaking of the poetic imagination. Inferior kinds of imagination have prospered, but the poetic has less credit than ever before. Perhaps that is because there is less room than ever for the personal, spacious, unanxious and free, for the unprepared, unorganized, and spontaneous elements from which poetic imagination springs."

Saul Bellow, speaking to us from his time machine.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

03 The Corrections Jonathan Franzen

Meet the Lamberts, and go home for Christmas this year.

Chip - Golden boy, prick of a brother, and a pedophile

Denise - Home-wrecker, chef, sexual deviant

Gary - Family man + hater of his family = depression

Enid - Oppressed Midwestern wife, just wants one more Christmas in St. Jude

Alfred - Pater familias, dementia stricken, hero

I know that Mr. Chilton has read, reviewed and dismissed this novel. I have found it worthy, and I look forward to reading the next book with which Chris finds fault. Franzen has a style that isn’t his alone, but he has mastered it. I’m not a lover of the sentence. And I don’t like reading authors that put massive amounts of importance on each sentence they write. Franzen lets his prose flow like the true storyteller he is. The dialogue is real and believable. Each of the Lambert’s has their novella woven together in a page-turning family drama. Franzen makes the reader root for each of them, but all of them are less than admirable characters. I hope to read Freedom this year. What follows requires a spoiler alert, but seeing as most have already read it…

Chip is considered a wise, focused, and free child that was born during the good times of the Lambert history. In reality he is a failure. He can’t have a healthy relationship, he can’t keep a job, and he’s writing a screenplay that will forever be rejected due to his motivation for writing it: revenge. The entire family respects him though, and this affords him endless love and admiration. He accomplishes this by never telling them the truth, but even if he tried to tell the truth the parents and siblings would find a way to turn his admission into a positive. I love Chipper, he is doomed, but there is hope for that screenplay after all.
Denise is the confused youngest child and only daughter. She makes poor sexual decisions throughout her story and each ruins someone’s life. Her virginity is taken by an older, married man that is a subordinate to her father at work. Her first marriage springs from a work relationship but ends in lesbian exploration. And her ultimate relationship in the story consists of a heterosexual married couple; she fucks them both. Denise does have a conscious, and I love Denise, but she is a home-wrecker and disappointment to all she touches. A damn fine chef, and there is always a need for sustenance.

Gary is my least favorite of the five. All he loves becomes all he hates. He is spiteful and not the least bit redeeming. His depression affects his marriage and relationship with two of his three boys. An effort to appease his mother by showing up for Christmas only results in his judgment of the status of her existence and his father's decline.

Enid is taking care of Alfred. She hates her responsibility and needs help. Her lack of culture is masked by a love of Europe, but she only loves what she cannot have and there is little optimism for how her life will turn out. She sees her family creating their own lives as a sign to make one last effort at a family Christmas, a holiday that for her is a symbol of happiness from a time she wishes she could return.
Alfred is a hero. He is losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, but he takes care throughout his life to do the right thing. His depression comes from his inability to do things for himself. Early in life he finds release by experimenting in his basement. Late in life he finds freedom by napping in a chair. His quiet sadness is a hallmark of his generation. Never complain. Always support. He is my own grandfather and father wrapped in one.

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

The Adventures of Augie March begins with America:

I am an American, Chicago born--Chicago, that somber city--and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.

And ends with it, too:

Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn't prove there was no America.

In his introduction, Christopher Hitchens identifies Augie's opening assertion as essentially radical. Augie, a Jew and the descendant of immigrants, claims an American birthright, unthinkable in the 1920's of the novel's opening and not much less so when it was written in 1953. We are inheritors of this assertion and will not find it strange; most of us will take it for granted that America is land of opportunity, an immigrant nation, where the ladders of social mobility can be scaled quicker.

Still, we can appreciate Augie's bold claim to exhibit a new conception of our national character. Augie is an American, that is to say, democratic. He tells us early on that the phrase "various jobs" is the "Rosetta stone" of his existence, and indeed his "adventures" can be summed as a series of tasks: He is a dog groomer, a union organizer, a petty thief, a sales clerk, a ship's pharmacist, an assistant to more than one millionaire. In one of the book's greatest sections, he spends a long period in Mexico training an eagle to hunt lizards. Some of these jobs are menial and low-class and others come with fancy wardrobes, but the overall line of progression is fluctuated, not upward as in some Horatio Alger story. When I say that Augie is democratic, this is what I mean--the dogged insistence that meaning and fulfillment, though not likely to be found, can be approached from all sides and all stations:

"How is your campaign after a worthwhile fate, Augie?" asked Clem, for he knew a lot about me, you see. Alas, why should he kid me so! I was only trying to do right, and I had broken my dome, lost teeth, got burned in the progress, a mighty slipshod campaigner. Lord, what a runner after things, servant of love, embarker on schemes, recruit of sublime ideas, and good-time Charlie! Why, it was a crying matter, no fooling, to anyone who might know which side was up, that here was I trying to refuse to lead a disappointed life.

Democratic, too, are Augie's attitudes toward people. On his ship during wartime he becomes a sort of confidant and advice-giver for his shipmates and tells us, "I advocated love, especially." Love is democratic because it regards social class, like all other concerns alien to mere personhood, as irrelevant. Augie's attitude reminds me of the King of France from King Lear, who remarks that "Love is not love / When it is mingled with regards that stand / Aloof from th'entire point." So it happens that, in my favorite section of the book, Augie risks estrangement from his heiress girlfriend, Lucy, in order to help a a friend obtain an illegal abortion. Lucy's parents believe he is mixed up with the girl sexually, not that it would matter if he weren't, and Augie mistakenly expects from Lucy the same kind of inconsiderate love that he gives freely:

Inside, on the turned-over heels of the yard shoes I hadn't remembered to change, I walked to the mirror to knot my black tie and saw backward, by the drape in the living room, the tense belly of Uncle Charlie, his sharp feet prepared, and sitting waiting in the oriental mix-up of brass, silk, wool, and all that gave the place so much power, Lucy, her mother, and Sam, observing me. I felt there was a big machine set against me. But I had come in order not to disappoint Lucy, toward whom, given their chance, my feelings could have shone and warmed again. I expected poisoned looks, against which I was coated and immune; at least, my greater trouble made such looks seem negligible; and I wasn't willing to be tagged for lascivious crime and false pretenses or whatever the coutns were that they thought they had against me. By no means nervous, therefore, I judged that I had only to do with Lucy, no fortune hunting now involved, for I could go any distance independent of brothers, relations, and all, provided that her impulse was a true one and she was, as she had always said, in love.

But love for others is not always the same as love for Augie, who has no conception of the love of money or the love of power. When he calls himself, at book's end, a "Columbus of those near-at-hand," he celebrates the love of people, the personal, individual life as opposed to the "big machine" which only has the power to oppose.

No wonder, then, that Bellow rejects the prose of Hemingway--who might be called typically American in that he exalts the stark, shorn pioneerism of Emerson and Thoreau--in favor of a looser, more exuberant style that is democratic in the sense that no word seems to excessive to leave out. Augie March is dense and allusive, delighting in its metaphors. The hem of a dress is "stiff as a line of Euclid." Elsewhere "the wheat looked like the glass of wheat." The human heart "circulates and warms, when it's piled at any bar or break, burns inward or out with typical embers or sores, and makes a track of fever or fire whose corresponding part is darkness and cold gaps." It is easy to lose the thread, and such long-windedness fails perhaps as often as it succeeds, but one comes to feel that, like Augie, such failures must be permitted.

Hitchens refuses to call it "The Great American Novel," though apparently Martin Amis does so freely. I myself categorically reject the existence of such a thing, but I will note that Augie March is obsessed with the reason that such a novel is impossible: America is too vast, too broad, too pluralistic to be pinned down. It is, in short, like Augie.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Broken Estate by James Wood

The last and titular essay in James Wood's The Broken Estate is uncharacteristically schizophrenic. It is sometimes about literature and sometimes about religion, and only infrequently about both. In it, Wood claims that both our literary and religious landscape are an inheritance of the nineteenth century, when "historical biblical criticism began to treat the Bible as if it were a biography or even a novel, and when, in turn, writers such as Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold began to treat the Bible as if he were the hero of a mystery tale." This "broken estate," Wood argues, blurs the line between truth and fiction, and thereby blurs the line between belief and the pretense to belief, the kind of believing we do with a novel and the kind of believing we do with a hymnal. Wood, in a sternly un-postmodern mood, condemns this empty religiosity:

Were Christianity simply true, its effect on the world could not be a way of measuring its truth. "Success" would be immaterial. But Renan and Arnold do not believe it to be true; its "truth" lies only in its usefulness. It is painful to see them wallow in the most primitive consequentialism. Both are defensively triumphant, and entirely circular... Such thinking, which does not deserve to be called thinking, with its clownish contradictions and repulsive evasions, positively deserves Nietszche's decisive hammer.

This is contrasted with Wood's defense of his own atheism, buttressed by the story of his own evangelical upbringing in England. It is not a unique defense but it is lucid, and takes a mutant form of the pretend-religion that he deplores:

The child of evangelicalism, if he does not believe, inherits nevertheless a suspicion of indifference. He is always evangelical. He rejects the religion he grew up with, but he rejects it religiously... Nominal belief is insufficiently serious; nominal unbelief seems almost a blasphemy against earnest atheism.

There is a final station this train of thought that does not quite reach: "Only when Christianity is understood as a set of truths," he writes, "does it retain uniqueness... [t]he 'great strength' of biblical Christianity is that we need it." Except it isn't true, and therefore we don't need it. In this way Wood neatly justifies any and all suspicion and revulsion toward religion he has exhibited in the 200 pages of literary criticism that precede this essay.

At least Wood is upfront about the origins of his points of view. I say this without sarcasm; we should all be so honest. After all, "the writer-critic, wanting to be both faithful critic and original writer, does it acutely, in a flurry of trapped loyalties." But it puts the two of us at eternal odds. Eliot's orthodoxy is "clenched, spiritless, and wrong." Luther's belief of justification by faith "was a cruelty that not only demanded an inhuman mental loyalty, but that, brought to its logical end, abolished the purpose of Christian conduct on earth." The narrator of Knut Hamsun's Hunger begins to devour himself because to do so is a "Christian perversion" by which "infinite humility is the soul's aim." Gogol's conflicted sense of self becomes Manichean:

On the one hand, he is the earnest Christian who argued, in an essay in 1836, for satire's traditional moral divide-and-rule... this Gogol renounced literature and food, incinerated the manuscript of the second part of Dead Souls and, in 1852, starved to death.

On the other hand, there is the satirist who is always falling over in laughter, who is never a convincing Christian, whose fanaticism seems parodic... The fanatical Gogol, we are told, destroyed Part 2 of Dead Souls because fiction was an unworthy activity for a saint. But it is not possible that the writerly Gogol, who had devoted twelve years to this manuscript, saw that a fiction of religious exhortation was no fiction at all, and not worth having?

It is possible, but not quite probable enough to justify the monstrous imposition of proclaiming Gogol's thoughts. I can buy the split-personality theory of Gogol, but the Puritan Gogol won out; Wood's stony absolutism--religious fiction is worthless!--cannot rewrite the historical record. Without irony, he later writes that D. H. Lawrence "is a mystic literalist. He is always a poet and a preacher at the same time. He should not be opened in two."

I find most of this fascinating but wrong. If The Broken Estate cleaved as tightly to this framework as I have so far suggested, I doubt I would have enjoyed it. But "Jane Austen's Heroic Consciousness" has little to do with the literature of belief, and "Thomas Pynchon and the Problem of Allegory" even less. These and many other essays seem to be here for no other reason than Wood wanted to write them. They hang together not because they have been marshaled into his anti-Crusade, but because Wood remains tremendously readable and thoughtful. He eschews the inscrutability of the academic in favor of writerly metaphor and turns of phrase: The preacher Lawrence is "the bully of blood, the friendless hammer." Pynchon's sense of allegory points "like a severed arm to nowhere in particular." I love John Updike, but I am continually amused (and a little chastened) by the thought that Updike "finds the same degree of sensuality in everything, whether it is a woman's breast or an avocado."

Wood's How Fiction Works succeeded because it was written with a non-academic, though educated, reader in mind, but when compared with the author of The Broken Estate he seems to be stooping low. The Broken Estate is simultaneously more academic and more personal, both more enthusiastic and more savage. It is brilliant but bitter, and despite Wood's assertion that loss of faith "brings great unhappiness to others, but not to oneself... It is like undressing," his book finishes disconsolately:

Why must we move through this unhappy, painful, rehearsal for heaven, this desperate antechamber, this foreword written by an anonymous author, this hard prelude in which so few of us can find our way?