Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Man Could Stand Up-- by Ford Madox Ford

Coming into the square was like being suddenly dead, it was so silent and so still to one so lately jostled by the innumerable crowd and deafened by unceasing shouts. The shouting had continued for so long that it had assumed the appearance of being a solid and unvarying thing, like life. So the silence appeared like Death; and now she had death in her heart. She was going to confront a madman in a stripped house. And the empty house stood in an empty square all of whose houses were so eighteenth-century and silver grey and rigid and serene that they ought all to be empty too and contain dead, mad men. And was this the errand? For to-day when all the world was mad with joy? To become bear-ward to a man who had got rid of all his furniture and did not know the porter--mad without joy!

Three books and over 500 pages into the Parade's End (1 2) novels, we get out first glimpse of real combat. For Christopher Tietjens, it has been a steady spiral to the bottom, from a high-ranking government position to quartermaster to the front lines, rejected at each step of the way because those around him cannot bear his stoic goodness, which is increasingly an anachronism. At the front, Tietjens is mentally unraveling:

It was like being a dwarf at a conversation, a conflict--of mastodons. There was so much noise it seemed to grow dark. It was a mental darkness. You could not think. A Dark Age! The earth moved.

Ford's dexterity as a novelist continues to amaze me. There is so much packed in here--the literal darkness of the world, which is at that moment being bombed, the "mental darkness" which is also the darkness, like the Dark Age, of human civilization. The cunning em-dash, which somehow expresses perfectly the stumbling gait of Tietjens' (once nimble) mind. The absurd matter-of-fact statement, "The earth moved."

Tietjens' middle portion is bookended by two sections dominated by his unspoken love object, Valentine Wannop, on Armistice Day. Valentine's excitement over the end of the war is tempered by the return of Tietjens, whom she loves, but has reportedly gone mad:

What was the coming together that was offered her? Nothing, on the face of it, but being dragged again into that man's intolerable worries as unfortunate machinists are dragged into wheels by belts -- and all the flesh torn off their bones! Upon her word that had been her first thought. She was afraid, afraid, afraid! She suddenly appreciated the advantages of nunlike seclusion. Besides she wanted to be bashing policemen with bladders in celebration of Eleven Eleven!

What is it, I found myself wondering, that makes the Tietjens and Valentine of A Man Could Stand Up-- different from those of Some Do Not...? I think we are rightly meant to respect their decision not to become lovers in that first novel, a decision which they reverse toward the end of this book. It is partly excused, I think, by the sense that Sylvia has abandoned Tietjens (though this is not explicit, her absence is peculiar). And also that both have simply earned their rest and companionship; Tietjens for his suffering, and Valentine for her willingness to become Tietjens' nursemaid if he turns out to truly be mad. (As John Dowell does for Nancy Rufford in The Good Soldier.)

Happily, this is not the case. I am struck by the strange optimism of A Man Could Stand Up--. There is the strong suggestion that Tietjens and Valentine come out on the other side of WWI better than they entered; not that something irrevocable has been lost or the world has been disfigured, as Modernist literature commonly regards the war, but that life can be instead rebuilt. I think Ford draws a sharp line between social consequences and personal ones, and notes that the couple's happiness can really only be found apart from the culture of war and spiritual emptiness:

A man could now stand up on a hill, so he and she could surely get into some hole together!

This is the third of the four Parade's End novels; I know that the fourth is a horse of a different color. A Man Could Stand Up-- carries a sense of closure, and so I feel comfortable calling it--gasp--a "happy ending."

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Translation is like sex.

...or at least, that's what Julian Barnes seems to be implying in this article about the difficulties of translating Madame Bovary. Witness:

1.) If you go to the website of the restaurant L’Huîtrière (3, rue des Chats Bossus, Lille) and click on ‘translate’, the zealous automaton you have stirred up will instantly render everything into English, including the address. And it comes out as ‘3 street cats humped’. Translation is clearly too important a task to be left to machines.

2.) Then we make a key decision: should this translator be ancient or modern? Flaubert’s contemporary, or ours? After a little thought, we might plump for an Englishwoman of Flaubert’s time, whose prose would inevitably be free of anachronism or other style-jarringness. And if she was of the time, then might we not reasonably imagine the author helping her? Let’s push it further: the translator not only knows the author, but lives in his house, able to observe his spoken as well as his written French. They might work side by side on the text for as long as it takes. And now let’s push it to the limit: the female English translator might become the Frenchman’s lover – they always say that the best way to learn a language is through pillow talk.

3.) Madame Bovary is many things – a perfect piece of fictional machinery, the pinnacle of realism, the slaughterer of Romanticism, a complex study of failure – but it is also the first great shopping and fucking novel.

4.) When my novel Flaubert’s Parrot was being translated into German, my editor in Zurich modestly suggested some additional flourishes: for instance, a pun on Flaubert as a ‘flea-bear’, and a German slang phrase for masturbation which literally means ‘to shake from the palm tree’. Since Flaubert, at this point of my novel, was being masturbated in Egypt, this felt like a happy improvement on the English text.

What's the connection? My guess: Translating literature is like sex because two writers come together to create one new work, and you can never tell how ugly (or not) it's going to turn out.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

Very often, as his hay-knife crunched down among the sweet-smelling grassy stems, he would survey mankind and say to himself: "Here and everywhere be folk dying before their time like frosted leaves, though wanted by their families, the country, and the world: while I, an outcast, an encumberer of the ground, wanted by nobody, and despised by all, live on against my will!"

Spoiler alert!

The Mayor of Casterbridge opens with a scene of remarkable cruelty: Michael Henchard, drunk on rum, sells his wife and daughter at a county fair. The book immediately fast-forwards eighteen years to the point at which Henchard, still distraught at his actions, has become a profitable businessman and mayor. When his wife and daughter return to find him, it presents him with, he hopes, an opportunity for redemption.

As it happens, at that same moment Henchard has made a purchase of bad grain (ohmygod there's so much in this book about grain) which prompts this exchange:

"But what are you going to do to repay us for the past?" inquired the man who had before spoken, and who seemed to be a baker or miller. "Will you replace the grown flour we've still got by sound grain?"

Henchard's face had become still more stern at these interruptions, and he drank from his tumbler of water as if to calm himself or gain time. Instead of vouchsafing a direct reply, he stiffly observed--

"If anybody will tell me how to turn grown wheat into wholesome wheat I'll take it back with pleasure. But it can't be done."

This is a bit on the nose for me, but it sets up the B-story, in which Henchard hires a young Scotsman named Donald Farfrae to run his grain business. Farfrae, as it happens, has invented a process that turns "grown wheat into wholesome wheat" and so offers Henchard a different kind of redemption.

But redemption is elusive. Henchard's wife soon dies, and leaves him with his daughter, who does not know she is Henchard's offspring. To make matters worse, his wife leaves him a letter that confesses she's not actually his, but that their daughter died in infancy and she named her next daughter after the first. Feeling cheated, he spurns her at the same time that his reliance on Farfrae turns to jealousy, and they become bitter rivals.

Casterbridge is a story about a man who works tirelessly to redeem himself, but cannot get out of his own way. As his place in society declines, he blames bad luck and the machinations of Farfrae, but cannot see that his pettiness, viciousness, and pride are what unravel his successes, just as they severed his marriage. After the sale he imposes a 21-year tee-totaling sentence on himself, but alcohol is not to blame for his powerful vices.

I did not find Casterbridge to be a success on the order of Far From the Madding Crowd (though the jacket erroneously calls it his "first masterpiece"). The prose is comparatively muted, and without the high-toned whimsicality of Crowd it is difficult to ignore how over-plotted it is. But it had me by the end, where Henchard, destitute, estranged from his "daughter" Elizabeth-Jane (who has married Farfrae!), has died and left this as a will:


"That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me.
"& that I be not bury'd in consecrated ground.
"& that no sexton be asked to toll the bell.
"& that nobody is wished to see my dead body.
"& that no murners walk behind me at my funeral.
"& that no flours be planted on my grave.
"& that no man remember me.
"To this I put my name.


A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel

Two things I don’t care for much are memoirs and audiobooks. The people that read the audiobooks either speak too slowly or get the voices all wrong. With memoirs, it’s always the doom and gloom factor that gets me—someone was abused or has some problem with addiction or—you get the point, and in the end you can’t put it down and know it’s just fabricated like you can with fiction. The last memoir I tried to listen to, Unbearable Lightness, made me want to give up on the whole consuming food thing all together. My mother gave me a memoir on audiobook and despite all of the many ways that could go wrong I had to listen to it because it was a gift. If I had known the only problem with it would be trying not to laugh hysterically in my cubicle at work, I would have listened to A Girl Named Zippy months ago.

The catch about Zippy is that it’s a memoir of a happy childhood. Like all childhoods, there are the scattered introductions to heartbreak, but there's nothing basement-level-sorrow-inducing here. In her case, it’s finding that the chicken she loved had been killed by some local dogs and watching other friends experience family woes and grief and not quite knowing how to handle it. Other than those two things, her biggest problems (on the page, at least) were obstacles like having to reclaim her best elementary school friend from the cool new kid from LA that brought culture and a leather jacket to their small town of Mooreland, Indiana and trying to talk her way out of going to the Quaker church with her mom each Sunday morning. Her stories are mostly centered around the quirky cast of characters from the town they live in and her family, who swore they bought her from a pack of traveling gypsies. The novel is full of normal childhood moments that were relatable to my own childhood: the attempted séances at slumber parties, simultaneously hating and worshiping older siblings, going crazy over decoupage and crafts only to discover that you aren’t particularly talented in the art department, and having major crises over the state of one’s hair. There was also a period where she recorded everything she could on a little cassette tape, which I vaguely remember trying to do with a YakBak without much success.

The thing that I enjoyed the most about the book was Kimmel’s ability to narrate everything from the voice of her childhood self without dumbing down the content. While I obviously can’t speak to the accuracy of that voice as I didn’t know her twenty some years ago, I can say with certainty that it’s believable:

"I figure heaven will be a scratch-and-sniff sort of place, and one of my first requests will be the Driftwood in its prime, while it was filled with our life. And later I will ask for the smell of my dad's truck, which was a combination of basic truck (nearly universal), plus his cologne (Old Spice), unfiltered Lucky Strikes, and when I was very lucky, leaded gasoline. If I could have gotten my nose close enough I would have inhaled leaded gasoline until I was retarded. The tendency seemed to run in my family; as a boy my uncle Crandall had an ongoing relationship with a gas can he kept in the barn. Later he married and divorced the same woman four times, sometimes marrying other women in between, including one whose name was, honestly, Squirrelly."

See what I mean?

The thing that got me the most about the book, though, was Kimmel’s relationship with her father. She knows he only gets drunk at work but she’s not quite sure if he works or what he does. He plays the best prank on their neighbors I’ve ever heard of in my life. When someone messes with his kids, he gets pay back. While he doesn’t agree with a lot of things the mother says or does, he still backs her, regularly giving Kimmel a look she says means, “I respect every way in which you are a troublemaker, but get up and do what your mother says."

While her parents are genuinely good people and actively show her love and support, they aren’t always the most involved or strict and usually don’t exactly know what’s she’s up to. After visiting a friend’s home and witnessing a different family dynamic, she says, "They did a lot of cleaning in their house, which I considered to be a sign of immoral parenting. The job of parents, as I saw it, was to watch television and step into a child's life only when absolutely necessary, like in the event of a tornado or a potential kidnapping." This is probably because her Dad is usually doing something smart assed and her mother is constantly just making her dent in the couch bigger, rereading science fiction, which leads to a misunderstanding where Kimmel thinks her mother is having an affair with Isaac Asmov. (This leads to Kimmel's second memoir, She Got Up Off the Couch, which details her mother finally doing just that.)

The best part of the book (for me) was the scene where the father tells Kimmel he’s going to take her to his church since neither of them believe in God so she can see his version of religion. When he takes her out to the middle of a campground to sit in the woods, she gets confused, because there’s no proper pews or minister or singing. He asks her, “What does the Bible say about where one or more are gathered?” and she tells him that equals fellowship, but there aren’t any people out there for fellowship. He points out the Bible doesn’t say one or more people, just one or more in general, and he’s having fellowship with this group of trees and that group of birds… that there's one or more of a lot of things to have fellowship with out in nature. While the school aged Kimmel is no devoted Quaker like her mother, she doesn’t seem to be able to get behind her dad’s brand of religion either, but there in the woods they make the most of it. It reminded me quite a bit of some moments I shared off the parkway with my college friends up in the mountains. (Unfortunately, somehow those moments also usually involved them being high and/or naked, but that’s neither here nor there.)

While Kimmel finds every excuse in the book not to go to church with her mother, at one point she decides she wants to bond with a girl she considers to be holy that informs Kimmel that in order to be a good Christian, you’ve got to do good works. Feeling put upon, she reconsiders that friendship after her quests to do good deeds turn into minor disasters. Later, she decides she wants Jesus to be her boyfriend, and she says of him, "On Jesus: "Everyone around me was flat-out in love with him, and who wouldn't be? He was good with animals, he loved his mother, and he wasn't afraid of blind people." She waits for boyfriend Jesus in the woods and her family doesn’t discourage her because they think it’s finally an act of dedication. Since she seemed earnest about it and she was only a kid, I laughed endlessly at this without feeling like I was cracking up over something sacrilegious. Kimmel eventually went to study theology at a divinity school but I'm not sure where she stands on faith now.

The last two best things about Kimmel are that she studied creative writing at NCSU and she currently lives in my home state which I appreciate because this means there’s finally an author I like that I may be able to realistically catch at a book signing. (How I always manage to miss Sedaris has become an ongoing point for frustration. Also, don't point out that he writes memoirs, becuase they are in the fiction section.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Dog Run by Arthur Nersesian

"Soon as I hung up, I suffered the acute and divine epiphany of being jobless. It was the modern equivalent to what medieval monks recorded after weeks and even months of starvation and sensory deprivation. I lay in bed and watched moments break into phenomenal particles of panic and could actually see the divine crack of God’s ass as he completely turned his back on me. I rose, dressed, grabbed doggy, and went to the ATM where I checked my balance. Doing some basic math, I realized that I had about three weeks before I would be in debt. I got a New York Times and a cup of coffee and brought the dog back home. Flipping through the classifieds, I looked for employment. I saw a couple of lousy-looking, tele-sale jobs and realized that this was going to be a real disaster. I cringed at the thought of having to start the whole job search again, updating my bogus resume, finding a costume that made me look responsible and professional, and then, worse of all, making calls and going for torturous interviews. Instead I turned on the TV and watched some white-trash sex nuts charging at each other on the Jerry Springer Show. For all the country’s political sensitivity and moral outrage, we secretly hungered for pornographic gladiator fights. Numb put her chin on my knee just like she used to do with Primo."

I can tell a book that’s been spat out from the fine folks at MTV Books a mile away because their jacket designs make me salivate even though I have to be automatically skeptical about them due to the company behind their imprint. To be fair, these are the same people that brought us the angsty gem Perks of Being a Wallflower. Dog Run by Arthur Nersesian beckoned to me while I was recovering from too much wine at Barnes and Nobles and I decided to see if I liked the inside as much as the cover. I won’t tell you it was as bad as I expected it to be, but it’s certainly no Perks.

On the back, a Jennifer Bell (who wrote a book I’ve never read) was quoted saying “Nersesian’s writing… is beautiful, especially when it is about women and love.” I’m pretty sure that I was misled by this, because while there was plenty about women and men and sex, there wasn’t a damn thing about love in this novel anywhere.

Our main character, Mary, is a 29 year old fuck-up that has been drifting from one temp job to the next without any real sense of purpose or direction. She’s got a book she’s been writing about shitty minimum wage franchises called The Book of Jobs and until maybe the third page, a live in boyfriend named Primo who she comes home at the opening to discover dead on her couch. Through a strange turn of events she finds out that everything she knows about the dead beau has been a lie and finds him infinitely more interesting dead than she did while he was alive. To put all of Primo’s puzzle pieces together, she hunts down (and sometimes stalks) all of his former lovers. Her detective work takes her to seedy strip clubs, art galleries, and a band audition where she ends up accidentally becoming the bassist for Crazy and Beautiful, whose singer is Primo’s ex wife and baby mama Sue Wotts. Sue has a reputation for being “that crazy Cambodian bitch” and even without Sue knowing what Mary’s connection to her is or her agenda, Mary still manages to rile Sue up incessantly throughout the novel.

I think most people have SOME degree of morbid curiosity about their partner’s former significant others, so it was interesting to see someone act out on that in ways that no one in my actual life (I hope) ever would. As long as it’s fictional, I enjoy a good train wreck.

While Mary tries to come to terms with Primo’s life and death, she also has to deal with recurring bouts of unemployment, manage a friendship with a histrionic husband-hunter that’s trying to find any decent remaining unattached Jewish men in New York after sleeping with the rest of the city of New York in its entirety, a string of dates with bizarre men, not pissing off Crazy and Beautiful, and being a decent dog mama to Primo’s overly needy canine Numb. Her relationship with the dog leads to a relationship with the local dog run (hence the book title), where she meets her new love interest, scatters Primo’s ashes, and bludgeons someone in the head and almost gets arrested. I found most of the subplots to be more interesting than the Primo fascination, which became tedious to read about a lot faster than I thought it would. The only subplot I could have done without involves Mary doing write ups on novel manuscripts sent into a publisher for a literary contest. The novels that she has to read all leave a lot to be desired, and Nersesian beats us over the head with that by making us endure three page stretches that describe their crummy plots, involving things like strange sex machines and self flagellating priests. I guess he’s trying to get us to feel sympathetic for Mary but I quickly became impatient with him, instead.

The book was entertaining enough over all, but there were quite a few boring stretches and bad sex scenes to work through before getting to the end, which was a landmine of back to back plot twists I never would have seen coming. I devoured the last quarter of the book right up until the last page, where Nersesian seemed to have forgotten that he made his main character neurotic and self involved and tied things up a little too nicely for them to be believable. The last page is not the right place for warm and fuzzy epiphanies.

I feel like I should follow this up with something more respectable and literary for my next review, but I probably won’t.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

These memories, which are my life--for we possess nothing certainly except the past--were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. mark's, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was my that morning.

Reading Brideshead Revisited for the second time is markedly different that reading it for the first, moreso than for most novels. As I pointed out in my earlier review, Brideshead reshuffles itself constantly, and it is another experience to know when the shifts are coming. It is not the story of protagonist Charles Ryder's friendship with Sebastian Flyte, or his romance with Flyte's sister Julia, or even the story of his strange relationship with the Flytes' manor at Brideshead, but the story of his long conversion to Catholicism. The second time around, that thread is much easier to follow.

I reread it mostly because I would like to write a short article on it. In brief, I would like to compare a scene in Brideshead to a corresponding one in Huysmans' A Rebours. In Huysmans, the effete dandy hero Jean Des Esseintes gilds the carapace of a tortoise's shell with gold and jewels; the weight eventually kills the tortoise. In Brideshead, Julia's shallow fiance Rex Mottram gives her a similar gift, in miniature:

It was a small tortoise with Julia's initials set in diamonds in the living shell, and this slightly obscene object, now slipping impotently on the polished boards, now striding across the card-table, now lumbering over a rug, now withdrawn at a touch, now stretching its neck and swaying its withered, antediluvian head, became a memorable part of the evening, one of those needle-hooks of experience which catch the attention when larger matters are at stake, and remain in the mind when they are forgotten, so that years later it is a bit of gilding, or a certain smell, or the tone of a clock's striking which recalls one to a tragedy.

I do not believe that Huysmans intended us to be put off by the cruelty to the tortoise; that the tortoise could not survive the ordeal of its beautification is indicative of Nature's inability to live up to Des Esseintes' ideal. Mottram's gift is a parody: Des Esseintes' is a massive Galapagan creature; Mottram's is a "small tortoise." Des Esseintes' dies, tragically; Mottram's escapes and buries itself somewhere, as if from shame.

The implication is that Mottram is something of a parody of Des Esseintes: strikingly modern, preoccupied with the superficial, curiously devoid of soul, but without the quartzy brilliance of Huysmans' protagonist. Later, Mottram tries futilely to become a Catholic to marry Julia, and his absurd willingness to embrace the Catholic tradition despite his inability to grasp its deeper significance is an indictment of the modern mind's estrangement from its spirit.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Perhaps strangely, the book that Julius Caesar brings most to my mind is Howards End. Like that novel, here is a work about the struggle between the pragmatic life and the life of “personal relations.” Brutus claims to have a deep friendship with Caesar, and yet he lets his pragmatism overrule him:

It must be by his death, and for my part
I know no personal cause to spurn at him
But for the general. He would be crowned.
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,
And that craves wary walking. Crown him that,
And then I grant we put a sting in him
That at his will he may do danger with.
Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power. And, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections swayed
More than his reason, but ‘tis a common proof
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber upward turns his face.
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent…

As others have pointed out, this is a fairly specious line of reasoning. Shakespeare’s Caesar, though immensely prideful, shows no inclination toward being a dictator, and Brutus’ conclusion—that possible tyranny, however unlikely, should be met with force—is horribly strained. “So Caesar may” is a long way from “Then, lest he may, prevent.” But Brutus is a man wedded to his own principles, and allows them to divorce him from the reality of his friendship with Caesar. His nobility and stoicism can be unnerving, as when he confesses to Cassius—then his closest friend—that he is tormented inwardly at his wife’s suicide, though to a late messenger he responds only by saying, “Why, farewell, Portia. We must die, Messala.”

Cassius is the third point of this (somewhat homoerotic?) triangle, and he is Brutus’ opposite in that he lets the personal override his good judgment. His love for Brutus overwhelms him so much that a quarrel brings him to the brink of suicide:

Oh, I could weep
My spirit from mine eyes. [offering his dagger] There is my dagger,
And here my naked breast, within, a heart
Dearer than Pluto’s mine, richer than gold.
If thou that be’st a Roman, take it forth.
I, that denied thee gold, will give my heart.
Strike, as thou didst at Caesar, for I know
When thou didst hate him worst, thou loved’st him better
Than ever thou loved’st Cassius.

Later, Cassius will kill himself for real, but only when he thinks that Brutus is dead. There is an echo here of truth: Brutus does not love Cassius nearly as much as Cassius loves Brutus, and Brutus is a man who suppresses what love he does hold. Cassius’ parallel is Mark Antony, whose love for Caesar also toiled in the shadow of Brutus and Caesar’s friendship, and who uses Caesar’s death to, in effect, claim the filial inheritance that was Brutus’.

And yet, unlike Howards End, which favored one side of things so forcefully, there are no easy answers in Julius Caesar. (Are there ever, in Shakespeare?) Cassius’ values are deeply human and personal, but they ruin him as completely as Brutus’ flawed devotion to a higher standard. In his forward to the Barnes and Noble edition, editor Andrew Hadfield argues that Julius Caesar takes place in a denatured system, in which friendship—long considered a social good that bound the ligatures of the Roman Republic—becomes a destructive force. I myself wonder if it does not show us that all good things may become vile.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Oh, what a love it was, utterly free, unique, like nothing else on earth! Their thoughts were like other people's songs.

Dr. Zhivago is usually remembered as a love story. And it is that, to be sure, but so much more: It is an epic in the Russian style, with a massive cast of characters (who all seem to be running into each other improbably over the course of their lives, as if it were no big deal to stumble across your childhood friend from Moscow in the desolation of Siberia). It is a war novel, about the upheaval in Russia created by the Russian Revolution. Much like Parade's End, it is about the way that the world changed fundamentally in the early part of the 20th century, ravaged by war and forced to find its footing again.

And it is a love story. The titular Yuri Zhivago grows up in Moscow, only occasionally entering the orbit of Lara Guishar, who he will meet later as a field nurse and then will become his lover. By then both are married and have children, but war has separated them from their spouses: Zhivago having been captured and impressed into medical service by a roving band of Bolsheviks; Lara's husband having become the renowned Bolshevik commander Strelnikov. The war brings them together, but ultimately it must also drive them apart.

The ultimate verdict on the Revolution is decidedly mixed. It drives lovers apart; it drives them together. It does away with the poisonous old system, but what does it have to offer but violence and instability instead? Yuri regards it with something near awe:

He realized that he was a pygmy before the monstrous machine of the future; he was anxious about this future, and loved it and was secretly proud of it, and as though for the last time, as if in farewell, he avidly looked at the trees and clouds and the people walking in the streets, the great Russian city struggling through misfortune--and was ready to sacrifice himself for the general good, and could do nothing.

And yet, in the individual moment of human lives, the Revolution proves horrific:

They stood around a bleeding stump of a man lying on the ground. His right arm and left leg had been chopped off. It was inconceivable how, with his remaining arm and leg, he had crawled to the camp. The chopped-off arm and leg were tied in terrible bleeding chunks onto his back with a small wooden board attached to them; a long inscription on it said, with many words of abuse, that the atrocity was in reprisal for similar atrocities perpetrated by such and such a Red unit--a unit that has no connection with the Forest Brotherhood.

No wonder the book was suppressed by the Soviet Union; Dr. Zhivago is a vile account of its national mythology. Yuri and Lara's love prospers in spite of their terror and their grief, and perhaps is even enhanced by it. Yet they live a doomed love, with no future, because they live in a futureless world. The Russia that emerges is utterly foreign to Yuri, and though he is wise, kind, and upright he is unable to deal with the totality of her changes.

There is a moment when Yuri is in the Bolsheviks' service that he sees a young boy with a head wound trying dutifully to keep his hat on straight and exacerbating his wound meanwhile. His comrades try to help him, through their misbegotten and shallow vision of goodness; the only one who has the power to see the deeper goodness is the doctor, Zhivago. He plays this same role as a poet--a sort of physician of the soul--and tries desperately to preserve sanity in an increasingly maddened world. Like Tietjens, he is too good for it. Pasternak himself lived daily with the heritage of that madness, and Dr. Zhivago--like Yuri with his poems--is the record of that struggle.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sunday, May 1, 2011

No More Parades by Ford Madox Ford

The whole of the affair, the more she saw of it, overwhelmed her with a sense of hatred.... And of depression! She saw Christopher buried in this welter of fools, playing a schoolboy's game of make-believe. But of a make0believe that was infinitely formidable and infinitely sinister.... The crashings of the gun and of all the instruments for making noise seemed to her so atrocious and odious because they were, for her, the silly pomp of a schoolboy-man's game.... Campion, or some similar schoolboy, said: "Hullo! Some Germain airplanes about... That lets us out on the air-gun! Let's have some pops!".... As they fire guns in the park on the King's birthday. It was sheer insolence to have a gun in the garden of an hotel where people of quality might be sleeping or wishing to converse!

No More Parades follows Christopher Tietjens to the theater of World War I, which we did not get to see in Some Do Not..., though it lurked in the background. Tietjens is a quartermaster now, in charge of supplying a draft of troops and preparing them to march, a job at which, with his organizational brilliance, he excels. But the two days that make up No More Parades are ones in which Tietjens is unraveling: Not only must he cope with the stress of getting the draft off, but he has been shaken by the unexpected death of one of his soldiers by a German bomb (this is, we are told, supposed to be far from the conflict). What is worse is that his wife Sylvia has "dropped in" on the camp to turn the screws into him.

No More Parades continues many of the same themes from Some Do Not.... Christopher lives by an outdated code, radiating a propriety and goodness that for some reason makes people despise him. Every single character in this book and the last at some point either suspects Christopher of vice or accuses him of it directly, and yet Christopher continues to be upstanding. The worst of these is Sylvia, who--for no other reason than to torture him--spreads the rumor that Christopher is a communist, a rumor which ultimately, at the end of the book, gets Christopher sent to the front line.

It seems to me that Ford is commenting on the decay of the moral compass' Western world. Here is a passage that will fit quite neatly in my paper on Ford's The Good Soldier, which is about the way that modernity ruins religious sentiment:

Tietjens had walked in the sunlight down the lines, past the hut with the evergreen climbing rose, in the sunlight, thinking in an interval, good-humouredly about his official religion: about the Almighty as, on a colossal scale, a great English Landowner, benevolently awful, a colossal duke who never left his study and was thus invisible, but knowing all about the estate down to the last hind at the home farm and the last oak; Christ, and almost too benevolent Land-Steward, son of the Owner, knowing all about the estate down to the last child at the porter's lodge, apt to be got round by the more detrimental tenants; the Third Person of the Trinity, the spirit of the estate, the Game as it were, as distinct from the players of the game; the atmosphere of the estate, that of the interior of Winchester Cathedral just after a Handel anthem has been finished, a perpetual Sunday, with, probably, a little cricket for the young men...

He laughed good-humouredly at his projection of a hereafter. It was probably done with. Along with cricket. There would be no more parades of that sort. Probably they would play some beastly yelping game... Like baseball or Association football... And heaven?... Oh it would be a revival meeting on a Welsh hillside. Or Chatauqua, wherever that was... And God? A Real Estate Agent, with Marxist views... He hoped to be out of it before the cessation of the hostilities, in which case he might be just in time for the last train to the old heaven.

Of course, Tietjens is engaged in the "yelping game" right now, the one that gives his wife Sylvia such a headache with its perpetual noise. War is the new religion of the world.

Poor Tietjens. It is some comfort to watch his commanding officer and family friend General Campion slowly unravel the threads that have led to his poor reputation, and come to accurate conclusions, but in the end it is too late: public perception is all, and Tietjens is off to the trenches. Ford uses this passage from Proverbs as his epigram:

For two things my heart is grieved:
A man of war that suffereth from poverty
and men of intelligence
that are counted as refuse.

But the book brought to my mind this passage by Lady Macduff, from Macbeth:

But I remember
I am in this earthly world; where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly...

I am finding these books immensely rich. They are not at all like The Good Soldier, which is often starved of detail and psychology (by design), but I would wager that three quarters of No More Parades takes place "inside" someone's head. This one suffers compared to Some Do Not... because it is missing Valentine Wannop, Christopher's would-be mistress, who was my favorite character from the first novel, but I know from flipping through the next book that she will be back.

The Adults by Alison Espach

All of my favorite novels go a little like this: A young woman (usually but not always high school aged) meets a man that is enough older than her that he is significantly older. The (usually inappropriate) relationship starts. Some seemingly world-ending (or ever day) event happens and they are torn apart. The separation continues for years until, one day, fate or sex bring them together again. But there’s more conflict! The conflict is always followed by a second drift. New lives be damned, though, inevitably—like it’s nothing—there they are again, together. They were put on this earth to torture one another and live in the squalid remnants of a basement-level-sorrow-inducing love. The book ends and you want to wail and gnash your teeth and beat your chest or listen to REM in the dark.

This probably means something is wrong with me.

Anyway, this is one of those novels. I discovered it when I was on my MFA-school-success-story-authors-only kick. (If you are wondering, though you probably aren’t, I didn’t get into McNeese and I did get into George Mason and I’ll be studying something else entirely at neither of those schools.) Espach studied at Washington University in St. Louis, where she learned how to write some incredibly clever dialogue. (Or maybe she went in writing incredibly clever dialogue. I don’t know.) Sometimes it’s so incredibly clever that I want to put her characters in time out for being so witty all the time because it’s just positively exhausting. I keep starting to type out examples, but they’re just lost out of context. So are all the lines that made me feel like Espach was sucker punching me.

There’s more than just the relationship between the girl and her English teacher, of course. In the beginning, there’s the uncomfortable and cringe-worthy stretch of passages that accompany all coming of age tales that make you feel like you need to scrub your face or you’ll turn into an awkward fourteen year old again. There’s suicide and the breakdown of the nuclear family unit in upper class America and a whole exciting section about studying interior design in Prague (that’s not sarcasm) and passages that will make you roll your eyes about how college boys try to seem sensitive by listening to Portishead while they screw you. Etc.

Finally, the cover. I am covetous of this cover art. I like to picture the jackets of the books that I imagine writing (but haven’t written because I’m lazy) and I am a little upset that I know this is a jacket that will never be mine.

I leave you with a passage… but first, an explanation. Emily, the main character, discovers that there’s a church in Prague made entirely out of human bones. When her younger sister’s dog dies, the sister requests Emily get the dog out of the house before she goes to sleep and bury it because she doesn’t want to dream in the same space as something dead. Emily puts the dead dog in a suitcase, calls up her ex-lover who happens to be in Prague on business, and has him meet her so that they can go to the bone museum to bury the dog because that’s what seems sensible at the time. On the way, however, they stop at a club to smoke pot and he decides to tell her that he’s married, which ruins this chapter of their reunion. The dead dog suitcase never makes it to the bone yard. He walks her back to her place and doesn't kiss her goodnight because he feels like he's cheating now that she knows about his wife whereas somehow he didn't before. Everything is miserable. Now, the passage:

"No matter where we went, we always ended up back where we started. I laid my head down on the pillow and when I tried to dream of some other life, Jonathon was right—there was no bell that tolled at midnight. But there was a garland of arms lining the entrance of the church. There were elbows flanking the altar. There were strings of skulls draped over windows like curtains, like, welcome, like, hey, like, Why don’t you kneel down and make yourself at home? Why don’t you prepare your bones to be something more elaborate than yourself"?