Saturday, April 27, 2013

Waverley by Sir Walter Scott

From the minuteness with which I have traced Waverley's pursuits, and the bias which they unavoidably communicated to his imagination, the reader may perhaps anticipate, in the following tale, an imitation of the romance of Cervantes.  But he will do my prudence injustice in the supposition.  My intention is not to follow the steps of that inimitable author, in describing such total perversion of intellect as misconstrues the objects actually presented to the senses, but that more common aberration from sound judgment, which apprehends occurrences indeed in their own romantic tone and colouring.

Sir Walter Scott's first novel, Waverley, was a huge hit.  Let me repeat that: This book was a huge hit.  That is quite an amazing fact--almost as amazing as the fact that I somehow made it through this rambling, horrid turd of a book.

Why did people love Waverley so much?  It promises a rousing adventure tale: Edward Waverley, a young and diffident nobleman, joins a company of English military dragoons in Scotland, yet finds himself drawn to the charismatic rebel Fergus Mac-Ivor and his beautiful sister, Flora.  Eventually he forsakes his regiment to join with the rebels, who are about to stage a military campaign to put Prince Charles, the heir of the Stuart line deposed in 1688, on the British throne.

The first problem is that the book never really delivers on this promise, preferring interminable passages of exposition and terrible Gaelic poetry to actual battle scenes.  The second problem is that Waverley himself is about as engaging as a plate of haggis.  And yet everyone in this book, Brit and Scott, Whig and Tory, Anglican and Presbyterian, is constantly heaping praise on him, despite his general lack of personality and absence of actual achievement, military or otherwise.

Scott goes to great lengths to depict Waverley as someone who reads too much, and gets carried away in his "own romantic tone and colouring."  That's the reason he gets so caught up in the cause of the Scottish rebels.  But Scott's is a winking criticism, because the novel romanticizes the Scots as much as the protagonist himself does, and Waverley's romantic notions in practice only make people more affectionate toward him.  The earnestness, in fact, that marks the relationship between Waverley and Fergus--and for that matter Waverley and everyone else--is noxious.  Let's call that the third problem. Naturally, Waverley never receives any real punishment for joining the rebels (who Scott's readers would know failed in their attempts to restore the Stuart line) and only comes out of the ordeal preposterously more respected.  Scott even supplies a noble English captain who is captured by the Scots, just so he can blather on about how gallant Waverley is despite what is technically capital treason.

The fourth problem is that Waverley contains sentences like this one:

He was about to proceed, but Callum Beg said, rather pertly as Edward thought, that "Ta Cean Kinne did not like ta Sassenagh Duinhe-wassal to be pingled wi' mickle speaking, as she was na tat weil."

Scott means this impenetrable Scot dialect to be funny, but it's just exasperating, from the first instance to the thousandth.

And yet, people loved this book--even Jane Austen.  It was the Da Vinci Code of its day.  The history and the politics were probably more relevant to them, and even though the dialect would have been just as inscrutable to Scott's English audience, the depiction of the Scottish Highlanders would probably have accessed both some fascination toward their exoticness and a  nostalgia for the outdated modes of gentility they embody, neither of which is available to an American today.  Waverley is, at the very least, a reminder that the past is a very strange country indeed.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Pain, Parties, Work by Elizabeth Winder

When Pain, Parties, Work, a new micro-biography of Sylvia Plath, came up for review, I decided I should introduce myself to some Plath, who I had never read. I owned The Bell Jar and some poetry, and decided to start with the novel. Having read Pain, Parties, Work, I’m really glad I did--although I knew that Plath’s experiences as a junior editor for Mademoiselle had informed her most famous work, I didn’t realize to what extent. A Venn diagram of Plath’s trip and the plot of The Bell Jar would almost be a circle.

For those unfamiliar, Plath was an amazing poet and writer whose suicide has come to define her, unfairly, as the patron saint of depressed teenage girls. Elizabeth Winder, a poet herself, wrote the book as a way to rewrite Plath’s story in popular culture, and, while I’m not sure the book will be enough to change public perception, Winder does a good job turning Plath into a fully-formed human being.

The layout of the book is interesting--it looks something like a magazine itself, with sidebars and images interspersed throughout the text, and the actual chapters vary in structure as well, from oral histories from Sylvia’s roommates on the trip to poetic excursions into the ephemera of Mademoiselle, the fashion world, and other, related topics. This makes for a fast read, but the information is good, and as a transformative tool for Plath, it works wonders.

Plath wasn’t the type to lock herself in a room to write. Instead, she gathered her inspiration from her experiences, particularly, as Winder notes, the concrete details of her experiences. Winder makes the case for Plath as an aesthete, appreciative of beauty for its own sake, one who believed the art needed no purpose but to exist. Not only was Plath a concrete thinker, she was also a social creature. She had a policy of never turning down a date, saying that even the worst of them provided material for her writing. Indeed, several of the dates mentioned here provide fodder for their lightly-fictionalized counterparts in The Bell Jar.

Plath’s fellow junior editors didn’t know what to make of her, and I don’t either, exactly, after reading Pain, Parties, Work. What I can say is that, between The Bell Jar and this book, my perspective on Plath has been challenged and upended. It’s challenged my sometime unintentionally sexist views on literature, and made me more open to trying other female authors who I might have previously dismissed. And I’m sure future readings of The Bell Jar will be greatly enhanced, knowing something about the story behind the story.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law by Antonin Scalia

A text should not be construed strictly, and it should not be construed leniently; it should be construed reasonably, to contain all that it fairly means.  
--A Matter of Interpretation
No State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
--Fourteenth Amendment
Justice Scalia:  We don't prescribe law for the future.  We--we decide what the law is.  I'm curious, when--when did--when did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage?  1791?  1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted? . . . I'm talking about your argument.  You say it is now unconstitutional.
Justice Scalia indicates how much he loves originalism.

Mr. Olson:  Yes.

Justice Scalia:  Was it always unconstitutional?

Mr. Olson:  It was constitutional when we--as a culture determined that sexual orientation is a characteristic of individuals that they cannot control, and that that --

Justice Scalia:  I see.  When did that happen?  When did that happen?

Mr. Olson:  There's no specific date in time.  This is an evolutionary cycle.

Justice Scalia:  Well, how am I supposed to know how to decide a case, then--?

--Transcript of Oral Argument, Hollingsworth v. Perry

What does "equal protection of the laws" mean?  How do we decide what it means?  Scalia attempts to explain how federal courts should be construing texts in this book.  His answer is simple: in a democracy, the law means what it says.  Not what the legislature meant to say; not what the legislature intended; certainly not what the legislative history says; but, rather, the words that the legislature used and their accepted meanings at the time the legislation was passed.

His basis for this basic formula is also simple: the legislature writes the law; determining meaning based off of the words used minimizes judges' discretion to write their own law.  Allowing judges to go off of legislative intent frees judges to invent or read into the law an intent.  This kind of freedom is unconstrained because who is to say what the legislative intent is.

Consider the following: at the time the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, drafters of the amendment would have believed that "equal protection of the laws" did not mean "there is a right to gay marriage."  So, at the time of passage, the clause had a specific reading.  Why should we read the clause differently today?  Under Justice Scalia's originalism, we should not.  The Fourteenth Amendment meant one thing in 1868; it means the same thing today.

So, Justice Scalia's point during the Hollingsworth oral argument is that if the meaning of the equal protection clause changes over time, how does he (or any judge) know what it means at the time he has to make a decision?  The point is important because, if the clause does not have a definitive meaning, should judges be the one to decide this important social issue?  Justice Scalia would say no, leaving the decision to the legislature to decide.  As he points out in A Matter of Interpretation, creating a constitutional right prevents flexibility in the legislature.

The book is split up into three parts:  1) Justice Scalia's essay on interpretation; 2) responses by various scholars; and 3) Justice Scalia's reply to the scholars.  To narrow this review, I will only discuss one response that I found particularly poignant.

Ronald Dworkin notes that there are two kinds of originalism: semantic originalism (read the text to say what those who made it intended for it to say) and expectation originalism (read the text to have the consequences that those who made it intended for it to have).  To explain the difference, Dworkin offers a hypothetical.  Boss says to Employee, "Hire the best applicant for this job."  Boss understands this to mean, "Hire my son for this job."  Under semantic originalism, Employee should hire the applicant with the strongest qualifications.  Under expectation originalism, Employee should hire Boss's son.

Applying the distinction to Constitutional provision: under semantic originalism it is clear that the Framers of the Constitution understood that executions would not be prohibited by the Eighth Amendments prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments (because at the time the Eighth Amendment was passed, executions were a common occurrence and the Framers would not have considered an execution cruel).  However, under expectation originalism, it is less clear what the Framers intended--the understanding of what constitutes "cruelty" could change over time.  Under expectation originalism, the Framers could have prohibited "cruel and unusual" punishments expecting that as time changed, understandings of "cruelty" would change too.

Dworkin makes this distinction to point out that Justice Scalia has no reason to accept semantic originalism but reject expectations originalism.  Both are reasonable ways of reading the Constitution.

In reply, Justice Scalia reiterates his commitment to semantic originalism; he adds, however, that his semantic originalism would protect people from a more brutal future where notions of cruelty may be more cruel than today (or more cruel than when the Eighth Amendment was passed).

My own views on this are developing (and, I'll add influenced by Judge Posner), and I'm reluctant to say anything knowing that I'm about to review Justice Breyer's book to contrast Justice Scalia, however I want to note one thought: the way we apply the Constitution could change without necessarily meaning that the Constitution's meaning has changed.  Perhaps instead of saying that the meaning of "equal protection" has changed since 1868, we should say that our understanding of humanity has changed; this new understanding of humanity includes the understanding that gay people are entitled to rights too.  Not because we understand the Constitution differently, but because we understand gay people differently.  The distinction between law and facts is well known within the study of law; perhaps we should recognize that it also applies to Constitutional law.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

He went; and, it being at any time a much simpler operation to Catherine to doubt her own judgment than Henry's, she was very soon obliged to give him credit for being right, however disagreeable to her his going.  But the inexplicability of the General's conduct was much on her thoughts.  That he was very particular in his eating, she had, by her own unassisted observation, already discovered; but why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most accountable!  How were people, at that rate, to be understood?

I reviewed Northanger Abbey on this blog a few years ago, and you can read my longer thoughts on it at the link, which I find have changed very little.  The Gothic parody bits, in which Catherine Morland lets herself be carried away by her imagination in the titular residence, are still a lot of great fun.  Now that I know more about the Gothic tradition, I can say with absolute sureness that they're a whole lot more fun than what they're parodying.  (Although, at one point Catherine and her Gothic-loving friend Isabella Thorpe discuss what they thought of The Monk--which proves how negligent their parents really are!)  And the rest of the novel, which is so much about crushes and frenemies that it might be an episode of Gossip Girl, is a lot of fun, too.

Having reviewed it once, I won't make this review too long, but I do want to note one thing that, the second time through, I think the novel is doing: It seems to me that Northanger Abbey is a kind of novel of education, in which Catherine learns to exercise her own interpretive faculty when it comes to what people say.  That is, she learns is that people often say one thing and mean another (you can see her still mystified by it in the passage above);  Sometimes, in the case of Isabella Thorpe, who claims to be in love with Catherine's brother while all the while scheming to "trade up" to a wealthy cavalry officer, this is called a lie.  Other times, in the case of Henry Tilney, who teases her with playful questions and jokes, this is called irony.

I've talked about Austen's ironic sense in the past, and I think that Northanger shows that Austen wasn't merely interested in irony as a tool but as a mode of living.  Henry is Catherine's instructor in this sense:

'I see what you think of me,' said he gravely--'I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow.'

'My journal!'

'Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings--plain black shoes--appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed my by his nonsense.'

'Indeed I shall say no such thing.'

'Shall I tell you what you ought to say?'

'If you please.'

'I danced with a very agreeable young man, introduced by Mr. King; had a great deal of conversation with him--seems a most extraordinary genius--hope I may know more of him.  That, madam, is what I wish you to say.'

'But, perhaps, I keep no journal.'

'Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting by you.  These are points in which a doubt is equally possible.  Not keep a journal!  How are your absent cousins to understand the tenour of your life in Bath without one!'

It's Henry's gentle ironies, I believe, that teach Catherine to be aware of the grosser, yet subtler discrepancies between what is said and what is true.  That's why Austen sticks in the seemingly incongruous Gothic parody; it is just another example of Catherine needing to see that difference.

In the class I'm taking on 19th-Century Lit, we focused a lot of Henry's character, and his role as an "educator" particularly.  It's a role he relishes, to the diminishment of Catherine, who Austen memorably describes as having an "affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind."  You can let that trouble you if you wish (it did my professor), but Austen's satire here is so light it's hard to get up-in-arms about Henry's mansplaining.  So light, in fact, it's hard to shake the impression that, if not for the parody, Northanger Abbey would be even more heavily overshadowed by toothier siblings like Pride and Prejudice and Emma.

"A groom must expect matrimonial pandemonium / When his spouse finds he's given her cubic zirconium."

Kenji Yoshimo discusses the criticism of Justice J. Michael Eakin's use of the above couplet in his dissent in the case of Porreco v. Porreco.  In general, Yoshimo disapproves, but concedes that the distinction between law and poetry is not cut-and-dry:

But like every generalization, the idea that law is a serious business while literature is an ornamental pastime has some important exceptions.   Given a culture that seeks to drive a wedge between law and literature, we should not expect legal poems to declare themselves as such.   This is not, however, the same thing as saying such poems do not exist.  

The most famous poem in law is the Miranda warning.   More people can recite this quatrain than can recite the Gettysburg address, much less a quatrain from most poets who were intentionally writing quatrains, like the quite catchy Alexander Pope. The broad dissemination of the warning in our culture through television and film has not just given it force, but affected its Constitutional stature.

Three thoughts:

First, I'm saddened by Yoshimo's premise that literature is an "ornamental pastime."  I think he's right, if you substitute the word "poetry" for "literature," and not because I believe that poetry is by nature nothing more than decorative or aesthetic, but because that is probably a fairly accurate description of poetry as it functions in America today.  Novelists, I think, can still claim to be about something far more serious and socially valuable, but the poet is so marginalized it's hard to imagine one claiming a part in the broader political or social debate without laughing.  ("Say, did you hear what Louise Gluck said about immigration reform?")

Secondly, I really love Yoshimo's description of the Miranda warning as a poem.  Here's how I'd do the enjambment:

You have the right to
remain silent
anything you say
or do
may be used against you
in a court of law
Finally, Yoshimo quotes from Robert Cover's 1986 essay that differentiates literature and law because the latter "deal[s] pain and death."  The suggestion is that the stakes are simply too high to play literary games with.   I'd suggest that that is more or less the right distinction; that the problem blurring the line between literature and law is that literature relies too often on purposeful ambiguities and ironies that make interpretation difficult, while the purpose of law is to eliminate those ambiguities as much as possible.  Yet to think of them as obviously distinct is to ignore the way in which law necessitates interpretation, and the way in which interpreting a legal text is not so different from a literary one.  (Stanley Fish has made a career out of mining this overlap, and Justice Scalia's recent book makes this point right in the subtitle.)

Yet I think implicit in Yoshimo's critique, as well as Cover's, is the distinction between texts that do something--here, something as serious as "pain and death"--and texts that do not.  I'm suspicious of this attitude because, a.) I think it's false (all texts are meant to "do something"), b.) I think it neuters the power of literature, reducing it to being "ornamental" and not just describing it that way, and c.) ignoring the fact that law is explicitly textual and without force in and of itself does us no favors.  To put it another way, the great difference in the power of a legal poem and a literary one is that no one puts in you in handcuffs while they read the latter.

Yoshimo ends his discussion by noting that "The Greeks embodied law-like mores in poetry to ensure their broad dissemination in an oral culture."  Sure, but Yoshimo is still thinking of law and poetry as essentially separate activities in a way that might have been lost on an ancient Greek.  He does, however, remind us that there was once a time in which poetry did have the kind of illocutionary power that's lost to it now.

Can poetry deal "pain and death" today?  This might be a logical leap, but Yoshimo's article made me think of Robert Oppenheimer, who commented on successfully detonating an atomic bomb with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, which is, of course, a poem: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

I assume that if Justice Eakin had said something like that, nobody would have batted an eye.  Maybe next time he should avoid the silly, three-syllable feminine rhyme.

P.S. I am not a lawyer, but some of you (Billy, Randy, Kunal...) are--what did you think about Yoshimo's piece?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Sister Cat by Frances Mayes

Two years ago in April, I tried to do a project on this blog where I blogged about a poem I liked every day of April, which is National Poetry Month, obvi.  (Here are the archives of that project.)  I didn't quite make every day, but I was able to get to 25 poems or so, and I really enjoyed the process, which made me go out and seek poetry I otherwise would never have read and think more deeply about the poems I already loved.  I don't have the time or energy to duplicate that project this year (it's the 12th already, after all), but I thought I might post about a few poems throughout April that I've come to read and love in the past two years.

With that purpose in mind, here's a poem I found recently, called "Sister Cat" by Frances Mayes:

Cat stands at the fridge,
Cries loudly for milk.
But I've filled her bowl.
Wild cat, I say, Sister,
Look, you have milk.
I clink my fingernail
Against the rim. Milk.
With down and liver,
A word I know she hears.
Her sad miaow. She runs
To me. She dips
In her whiskers but
Doesn't drink. As sometimes
I want the light on
When it is on. Or when
I saw the woman walking
toward my house and
I thought there's Frances.
Then looked in the car mirror
To be sure. She stalks
The room. She wants. Milk
Beyond milk. World beyond
This one, she cries.

"Sister Cat" was published on Poetry 180, a compilation of "plain-language" poems put together by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins with the goal of having them read aloud in schools.  (A school year typically has 180 days, which for those of you keeping track at home, means that school teachers spend less than half the year in the classrom.  Lazy bums!)  The poems are meant to be read and appreciated, not prodded and dissected, and for that reason they're mostly highly readable and accessible.

But I saw a lot of students have trouble with "Sister Cat."  Why?  There is a sentiment being expressed in this poem that I have often felt, but which I've rarely seen talked about in literature: that uncanny feeling that, when you get the things you want, you can't shake the desire for them.  That's about more than just being unsatisfied with the fulfillment of your wants and needs, and it's excruciatingly difficult to talk about.  Why are we so lonely even in the presence of friends and loved ones?  Why do we want "Milk / beyond milk?"  There is a feeling--perhaps you've felt it too--that our desires are mismatched to reality, and their only hope of being satiated is a "World beyond / This one."

What I discovered is that this is not a feeling that eighteen-year olds understand.  Perhaps they haven't had the exoerience of the strange disappointment of fulfilmment; probably they still hold on to those tenacious fantasies about growing up, going out, and reaching a state of achieved happiness.  I still hold on to those fantasies too sometimes.  When they find out just how elusive those states can be, I hope they'll remember this poem, but I doubt it.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

"In a letter written by Dostoevsky to an old friend sixteen years later, the writer of so many great confession scenes depicted Dickens baring his creative soul..."

“...All the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity toward those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. ‘Only two people?’ I asked.”

Hell of a story, that--almost too good to be true.  In fact, appeared in several biographies of Dickens before anyone noticed that it was certain to be false.  But who invented it, and why?

In The Times Literary Supplement, Eric Naiman traces the history of this hoax.  The truth is, shockingly, even more fascinating than the lie.  What Naiman uncovers seems to be a single disaffected scholar who has created a labyrinthine network of false identities to give his publications--including not only literary criticism but science-fiction, satirical novels, and nipple-themed erotica--an aura of respectability.  Naiman's account seems at first like a story of runaway hubris, but somewhere toward the end, when he writes about how the culprit, using one of his sock puppet aliases, purchased a small brochure for the British Library about his own novel with "no ISBN and held together by staples," it becomes something deeply tragic and extremely fascinating.

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

What is truth?  I could have realized these people with my fun and games with their life-stories, while Sir Quentin was destroying them with his needling after frankness.  When people say that nothing happens in their lives I believe them.  But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.

Muriel Spark wrote an autobiography in 1992 called Curriculum Vitae.  I haven't read it, but it seems to have been poorly received.  The charge, as I gather from Martin Stannard's biography, is that Spark held her cards too close to her chest; given her prickly reputation and her fetish for authorial control, I believe it.

Loitering with Intent was published eleven years before Curriculum Vitae, but it seems that Spark was already thinking about her own autobiography, and autobiographies in generalTwo of Spark's favorites, those of Cardinal John Henry Newman and Benventuo Cellini, recur throughout Loitering, which is all about the way people write about themselves, and the way that writing, as life, can spin out of control.

Fleur Talbot, trying to support herself while writing a novel, takes a job as a secretary for the Autobiographical Society under the patrician snob Sir Quentin Oliver.  Her task is to edit the memoirs of the Society's members, which are dull, delusional, and poorly written.  Fleur begins to add embellishes to them, turning their lives into fictions.  Spark's accounts of the Society Members are some of her best comic passages:

"Indeed, you have made some very interesting changes.  Indeed, I wondered how you guessed that the butler locked me in the pantry to clean the silver, which he did indeed.  Indeed he did.  But Nanny on the rocking-horse, well, Nanny was a very religious woman.  On my rocking-horse with our butler, indeed, you know.  It isn't the sort of thing Nanny would have done."

"Are you sure?" said Sir Quentin, pointing a coy finger at him.  "How can you be sure if you were locked in the pantry at the time?  In your revised memoir you found out about their prank from a footman.  But if in reality..."

"My rocking-horse was not at all a sizeable one," said Sir Eric Findlay, K.B.E., "and Nanny, though not plump, would hardly fit on with the butler who was, though thin, quite strong."

"If I might voice an opinion," said Mrs. Wilks, "I thought Sir Eric's piece very readable.  It would be a pity to sacrifice the evil nanny and the dastardly butler having their rock on the small horse, and I like particularly the stark realism of the smell of brilliantine on the footman's hair as he bends to tell the small Sir Eric-that-was of his discovery.  It explains so much the Sir-Eric-that-is."

But Sir Quentin has something nefarious up his sleeve, and soon the manuscript of Fleur's novel goes missing, and then the lives of the Autobiographical Society begin mimicking its plot.  Spark keeps the mechanism of these events ambiguous--clearly Sir Quentin is manipulating them to some extent, but even Fleur admits that the members of the Society bear a remarkable likeness to her characters, who were created before she even took the job.  The line between recording a life and creating it through writing is never clear, and Spark seems to be wondering which of the two we are actually doing when we write about ourselves.

It is tempting to read Fleur as the author's stand-in and Loitering as a kind of autobiography.  Stannard points out how many of the details of Fleur's life are adapted from Spark's own.  Fleur's discovery that (spoiler alert) Sir Quentin has been feeding the members hallucinatory Dexedrine mirrors Spark's own issues with the diet pill, which caused her to believe, for a time, that T. S. Eliot was subliminally threatening her through his works.  But such a reading never coheres, and Spark seems to be daring us to fall into this trap.

Yet, Loitering is a fascinating glimpse into Spark's thinking about writing.  I am certain that, on that subject, Fleur and Spark are the same.  "No matter what is described," Fleur tells us, "it seems to me a sort of hypocrisy for a writer to pretend to be undergoing tragic experiences when obviously one is sitting in relative comfort with pen and paper or before a typewriter."  That explains so much of the Muriel-that-was.  And: "I've come to learn for myself how little one needs, in the art of writing, to convey the lot, and how a lot of words, on the other hand, can convey so little."  And then there's the last sentence of the passage I opened this review with, which I'm going to repeat, because it's just so, so good:

But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

"To produce a novel that was entirely and deliberately bad — not merely bad at the beginning as part of a plan to tease readers about their desire for naive realism — would be a truly daring artistic move."

The danger, of course, is that people will assume you are simply a bad writer, a risk all the more pronounced when this is your first novel. It’s true, the narrator of “The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards” is exactly the sort of writer who would produce a self-involved meta-narrative, but Jansma could be, as well. And surely if Jansma were so fiendishly clever as to devise such a plan, he would have done so in service of a more interesting theme than that most tiresome of authorial assertions, that fiction writers tell “lies.”

From Laura Miller's interesting take on postmodern "sneaky author tricks" in Salon, a critical view that inspired Flavorwire to post their top ten "phenomenally tricky books."

Miller goes after two different, but often related, gimmicks: The reveal that everything you've been reading is a fictionalized account all along, and the gimmick of writing poorly on purpose because your story represents someone else's work.  Miller relies on Ian McEwan and Kristopher Jansma's The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards (which I've never heard of), but each of those made me think of a different book: First, Life of Pi (link to Kunal's recent review), which I thought was far more patronizing than Atonement in the exact same fashion that Miller it is criticizing.  Second, The Iron Dream, which asks the question: What if Hitler was a science fiction author?  The Iron Dream is the best example I can think of what Miller's talking about above, a bizarre achievement that's either a total success or a complete failure--and absolutely excruciating to read.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"Romeo and Juliet—a play about children—is full of terrible, deeply childish ideas about love."

Condola Rashad from David Laveaux's ROMEO AND JULIET
Brent asked me for my thoughts on Alyssa Rosenberg's appraisal of David Laveaux's plans to stage an interracial Romeo and Juliet on Broadway.  Rosenberg's not into it, not because of Laveaux's plan, but because it's Romeo and Juliet:

Romeo and Juliet itself hasn’t aged well. The story follows Juliet Capulet, who is 13 when she meets Romeo Montague at a party, falls head over heels in love with him, and marries him within a day of meeting him. Romeo's age isn't specified in the play, but the quickness with which he throws over a former flame for Juliet doesn’t suggest a particularly mature man. Maybe this works on the page, when we’re not forced to watch actors and actresses who are clearly in their 20s and 30s behave like early teenagers. But the effect is embarrassing and unsettling for today’s theater audiences, perhaps already fretting over suspended adolescence and stunted millenials.

So, here goes.  Thought 1: It's probably not even worth blogging about, partly because Rosenberg's getting one hell of a pushback in the Slate comments section without my input, and partly because there's nothing new to Rosenberg's criticism of the play anywayThere are many people who share this view, not least among them every freshman who's ever read this play.  And do you know what?  For a long time, I was of the same mind.  Romeo and Juliet had always seemed juvenile in its way, and teaching it to high schoolers who think it's too childish for them made me very sour on it.  I didn't really come back to it until I took a Shakespeare seminar for teachers at Columbia University, where I was reminded of some of the play's great qualities--especially its poetry, which comes closer than any other play to matching the lyric beauty of the sonnets.

Now that I'm on the other side of my distaste for the play, I think that a lot of what I felt--and a lot of what my students feel--was a revulsion that came out of my entrenched need to feel mature.  I believed, as my students do, in true love, but I knew that it was not something I could or should expect at eighteen, and my insistence on being sternly realistic about it was compensation for that lack.  Dismissing the love Romeo and Juliet share for each other because of their age was always more about my need to be an adult than theirs; my realism was a projection.  I think that some people never outgrow that put-on cynicism.

I reject the persistent notion that Romeo and Juliet's love is nothing more than an infatuation.  It may be a mistake, but it isn't a mistake because it's a delusion.  It's impossible for me to read the play now and see the way that Romeo changes when he's around Juliet; his very language alters at the sight of her.  Romeo begins the play speaking in stilted, oxymoronic words that ape Petrarchan traditions of courtly love:

Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this

And the moment he sets eyes on Juliet, suddenly becomes the personification of all of Shakespeare's powers:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Thought 2: Rosenberg's admission that the play doesn't hold up well sounds very sheltered and solipsistic to me, and makes me think unpleasantly about how I've made similar observations about other works.  But in her attachment to the modern perspective, I think she misses the importance of the period in which the play is set, the universe it inhabits.  She can complain about Romeo's maturity based on the fact that he marries Juliet within a day, but how much different are Capulet's plans for Juliet?  ("Monday! ha, ha! Well, Wednesday is too soon, / O' Thursday let it be: o' Thursday, tell her, / She shall be married to this noble earl.")

To put it another way, I think that Rosenberg misses something that the play is crucially about: The way in which Romeo and Juliet's love opposes the official authority of both their parents and their society at large.  Whether you believe Romeo and Juliet's love is real or valid, it is theirs, defined by the very fact that is unsanctioned.  Those who ridicule the idea of Romeo and Juliet dying for their love fail to see that love only half of what they die for, the other half being the social structure that makes that love transgressive and dangerous.  By tut-tutting the propriety of their relationship, Rosenberg is, in a way, modeling these very structures.  And yet the versatility of that story--the love that dare not speak its name, if you will--is what makes the play so attractive to directors like Laveaux, who see in it an opportunity to talk about social issues more important to the present.

Thought 3: Rosenberg's complaints that the plot doesn't make much sense don't make much sense:

Why are the families fighting? What was the inciting incident? The absence of a reason does mean that adaptations can fill in space that Shakespeare left behind, making the warring parties Puerto Rican and Polish-American, for instance, or Israeli and Palestinian. But even then, having the two lovers kill themselves through a series of misunderstandings doesn't translate well in a setting that takes any sort of modern communications for granted. And it's hard to believe the couple, no matter how lovelorn, would lack the patience to wait 24 hours to get hitched—not to mention the savvy to check up on a bad report from Verona.

Who cares what the "inciting incident" was?  Would knowing why the two families are fighting make the play one jot better?  If Grandpa Montague stole Grandpa Capulet's cow back in the day, wouldn't that affect the way we evaluate guilt on both sides?  Coleridge called Iago a "motiveless malignity," and Shakespeare makes the same kind of choice here--he's not interested in the causes of hatred, but its effects.  Rosenberg's assertion about "modern communications," on the other hand, is too silly to take seriously.

What about her argument that the couple's death is "an adolescent fantasy of death solving all problems, a 'won't they miss me when I'm gone' pout?"  To that I'll only say this: When we ourselves are past the point where it takes tragic acts of violence to force us to see our own flaws, our crookedness, our backwardness, then maybe Romeo and Juliet will truly--happily--be irrelevant.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne

In truth, it was dizzy work, amid such fermentation of opinions as was going on in the general brain of the Community.  It was a kind of Bedlam, for the time being; although, out of the very thoughts that were wildest and most destructive, might grow a wisdom, holy, calm, and pure, and that should incarnate itself with the substance of a noble and happy life.  But, as matters now were, I felt myself (and having a decided tendency toward the actual, I never liked to feel it) getting quite out of my reckoning, with regard to the existing state of the world.  I was beginning to lose the sense of what kind of world it was, along innumerable schemes of what it might or out to be.

How do you balance the world as it is with what it might or ought to be?  How can you, when the latter is imagined a million ways, when it is constructed from "innumerable schemes?" As Miles Coverdale, the protagonist of Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance, tells the ingenue Priscilla, "People never do get just the good they seek.  If it come at all, it is something else, which they never dreamed of, and did not particularly want."

The Blithedale Romance is all about competing visions of "the good."  It's based on Hawthorne's abortive experience at the Utopian community of Brook Farm, with which Blithedale shares a lot of similarities: A place of communal farming, cooking, and living, like an American kibbutz or something.  These Utopian communities were, apparently, an important part of 19th century ideas of reform: They promoted both social and individual improvement, and emphasized a closeness to the land.  Coverdale, a famous poet who goes to live at Blithedale, is Hawthorne's stand-in, and he grows to believe very strongly in the Community's mission, perhaps more strongly than Hawthorne himself ever did.

The problem, as presented through Coverdale's eyes, is the surfeit of good intentions: His friend and fellow Community member Hollingsworth is a philanthropist committed to prison reform, and surreptitiously plans to purchase Blithedale's land and build a prison on it.  The scene where Hollingsworth begs Coverdale for his allegiance is a really fantastic chapter, full of pathos:

"Coverdale," he murmured, "there is not the man in this wide world, whom I can love as I could you.  Do not forsake me!"

As I look back upon this scene, through the coldness and dimness of so many years, there is still a sensation as if Hollingsworth had caught hold of my heart, and were pulling it towards him with an almost irresistible force.  It is a mystery to me, how I withstood it.  But, in truth, I saw in his scheme of philanthropy nothing but what was odious.  A loathsomeness that was to be forever in my daily work!  A great, black ugliness of sin, which he proposed to collect out of a thousand human hearts, and that we should spend our lives in an experiment of transmuting it into virtue!"

It is not at all clear to me who is being selfish here.  Is it Hollingsworth, steamrolling Coverdale's (and everyone else's) ideas about the common good to establish his own?  Is it Coverdale, whose idea of reform stops conspicuously short of doing anything for other people?  At the heart of The Blithedale Romance is, I think, this idea that even the best intentions can destroy each other.

Complicating this relationship is the love triangle between Hollingsworth, the wealthy beauty Zenobia, and the waifish, innocent Priscilla.  Though Blithedale is supposedly about an entire community, only these four seem to exist in it, and even Coverdale admits that some of his tension with Hollingsworth comes from a feeling of being left out:

Generosity is a very fine thing, at a proper time, and within due limits.  But it is an insufferable bore, to see one man engrossing every thought of all the women, and leaving his friend to shiver in outer seclusion, without even the alternative of solacing himself with what the more fortunate individual has rejected.  Yes; it was out of a foolish bitterness of heart that I had spoken.

Coverdale styles himself as an outsider, and observer, selectively ignoring the way that he, Heisenberg-like, participates in the very events he imagines himself to be separate from.  He observes and wonders: Which does Hollingsworth love?  Is he after Zenobia's money for his ludicrous prison?  What is his interest in Priscilla?  And yet for all his watching, he never penetrates much into the reality of what he sees, which involves (in some typically Hawthornian twists) a suspicious stranger, a fortune teller who never removes her veil, and long-lost siblings.

Ultimately, Blithedale is a very small and human drama which seems more tragic against the backdrop of the Community, with its all-encompassing social project and Utopian aims.  It it is about the bittersweet triumph of people and relationships over ideas:

The bands, that were silken once, are apt to become iron fetters, when we desire to shake them off.  Our souls, after all, are not our own.  We convey a property in them to those with whom we associate, but to what extent can never be known, until we feel the tug, the agony, of our abortive effort to resume an exclusive sway over ourselves.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski

I'm a big fan of the slow build. It's a storytelling device that works particularly well in written storytelling. And when it's done well, it's hard to beat. The problem with the slow build is that it puts pressure on the climax of the story. People are expecting something big. The payoff is kind of the point of the slow build.
The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is one big slow build. No sooner does Leganski introduce a character in her tale, than she is dropping hints about their arc, punctuating her story with spots of foreshadowing. Leganski lays out the basic plot of her novel in the first eight pages. She introduces her readers to Bonaventure as he is being introduced to the world, immediately signaling to her readers that there is something unique--something special--about this little baby, and that this special something is the organizing force of the novel. She describes him as being able to "hear conjured charms and sanctified spirits deep in the marrow of New Orleans. He could hear the movements of voodoo queens and the prayers of long dead saints. He could hear the past and the present." Two paragraphs later, Leganski introduces Trinidad Prefontaine as "a kindred spirit" that Bonaventure needed to join up with. Bonaventure and Trinidad don't meet for another 170-some pages.

Leganski lets her readers in on the story piece by piece, jumping back a generation when backstory is necessary, and all the while bouncing between three story lines, seemingly disparate except that Leganski has explicitly told her readers that they will converge. She conjures a mystical mid-20th century Louisiana and populates it with equally mystical characters.

Leganski does a better job with the slow build, than she does with the ending. There is no real climax to the story. That's not to say that loose ends are not tied up, that story lines are not put to rest. But the story didn't crescendo like I expected it would.