Sunday, November 26, 2017

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

A. (firmly) The Empire will vanish and all its good with it.  Its accumulated knowledge will decay and the order it has imposed will vanish.  Interstellar wars will be endless; interstellar trade will decay; population will decline; worlds will lose touch with the main body of the Galaxy.--And so matters will remain.

Q. (a small voice in the middle of a vast silence) Forever?

A. Psychohistory, which can predict the fall, can make statements concerning the succeeding dark ages.  The Empire, gentlemen, as has just been said, has stood twelve thousand years.  The dark ages to come will endure not twelve, but thirty thousand years.  A Second Empire will rise, but between it and our civilization will be one thousand generations of suffering humanity.  We must fight that.

It's not a stretch to say I owe a lot of my love for literature to Isaac Asimov's Foundation series.  It was a recommendation my Dad made, after I had picked up some of his old sci-fi magazines.  I loved it: the epic sweep of the storyline affected me in the way that Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have affected other kids, in other times, and I was hooked.  I read the whole series all the way through.  I don't read much science fiction anymore.  A lot of what I treasured about it--the inventiveness, the feat of imagination, the gripping plot--could be found, I discovered, in other books as well, and in ways that often ran more deep.

Re-reading Foundation for the first time in decades confirmed a lot of what I remembered loving about the series.  Asimov, like Stephen King, is a writer damned with the faint praise of being the best of the genre writers, and with Asimov, that's probably a fair description: though the prose is often utilitarian and sparse, he knows how to propel a story in ways that other, even more "literary" science fiction authors, struggle with.  Foundation is breezy, but it hurtles forward with great urgency for a book that takes place over a couple centuries.  And every now and then an inspired detail emerges, like the young prince on the planet Anacreon who hunts giant Nyakbirds in his jet-cruiser, or the descriptions of the crowded urban planet Trantor, home of 40 billion people.

Re-reading it also revealed some of its flaws.  The Foundation series, in a nutshell, is the story of a thousand years in future history.  At the height of the Galactic Empire, which stretches throughout the known universe, a mathematician named Hari Seldon predicts a coming "fall" which will plummet the universe into barbarism, and sever communication between planets.  He sets up the Foundation, a society on the far-flung planet of Terminus, which will preserve culture, science, and math in hopes of reestablishing the Empire after a millennium-long Dark Age--as well as a second Foundation, secreted away somewhere on the other side of the universe.  His mathematics allows him to predict the course of history, and over that thousand years a pre-recorded hologram of Seldon on Terminus advises the people of the Foundation on how to approach the problems of spatial geopolitics.

Like all fiction that claims to give a vision of the future, Foundation is most jarring when it betrays a lack of vision beyond its own time period.  At one point, Seldon, on trial before the Empire, balks at their suggestion that he has 100,000 followers at his disposal--they fear an uprising--because they are counting "women and children."  It's striking that even an avowed liberal like Asimov would fail to predict just how antiquated that would sound, even as he was in the midst of the twentieth century's push for women's equality.  Foundation tries to predict thousands of years of history, but it seems passe just seventy years later.

That's a small example that speaks to a larger problem that strikes other science fiction writers: the tendency to extrapolate from contemporary or historical circumstances, which detracts from the sense of prediction or imagination.  Asimov modeled the series after Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and at times it seems like a recapitulation of history than a vision of the future.  In its first century the Foundation moves through a series of recognizable epochs--first, it's a society of scientists, working on an encyclopedia, then, a political entity which cements its power in its region of space by providing atomic power in the guise of a Galactic religion.  From there it moves to a trade-based society whose power is largely economic.  The heroes of the story are always those who see the path of history, and are willing to embrace the new political circumstances rather than clinging to the old ways.

But the truth is that this structure is shallow, like a textbook looking for digestible patterns, and fails to recognize the interplay between science, religion and trade, in the Roman Empire or the Galactic one.  It professes a view of human history that is teleological, and privileges the historical moment in which the book was written--note how the religious society is placed at the beginning of the Foundation's history, at a point which is meant to be the most primeval.  No doubt you can see the movement of history back towards empire, personified not as the Roman Empire but the Atomic Age--it's the use of atomic power that separates the civilized from the barbaric in Foundation, which is strange today, when the technological advances we think of as being most important are largely informational and communicative.

This teleological vision of humanity works for Asimov because he shares Seldon's confidence that large groups of people can be successfully modeled statistically.  That's probably true, to an extent.  But there's little respect for the engines of chance, or chaos, or sheer human individuality.  (Future books, I know, trouble this assumption much more.)  Without taking away from Asimov, whose work has always meant a lot to me, I think it's those who appreciate the strangeness of human beings, their impulsivity and unpredictability, who often do the best job of imagining the future.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

In the S bus, in the rush hour.  A chap of about 26, felt hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone's been having a tug-of-war with it.  People getting off.  The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him.  He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past.  A snivelling tone which is meant to be aggressive.  When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself onto it.

Two hours later, I meet him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the gare Saint-Lazare.  He's with a friend who's saying: "You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat."  He shows him where (at the lapels) and why.

Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style tells a banal story, and tells it 99 times: a young man gets into an argument on a bus before taking an empty seat.  Later on, the narrator sees the same man having a conversation with another who suggests putting a new button on his overcoat.  It couldn't be anything but banal, really, because the plot, such as it is, isn't the point; it's the endless variation of style that Queneau wants to emphasize, the number of methods without limit of telling the same story.  The first version, above, is titled "Notation," but others tell the same tale with primarily auditory language, or use the metaphors of gastronomy, or in the fashion of a telegram or official letter, or in the voice of another kind of person, or without the letter E, or according to any number of mathematical word-games.

Some stand out, like "Philosophical," which begins, "Great cities alone can provide phenomenological spirituality with the essentialities of temporal and improbabilistic coincidences."  Or "Apostrophe," which begins, "O platinum-nibbled stylograph, let thy smooth and rapid course trace on this single-side calendered paper those alphabetic glyphs which shall transmit to men of sparkling spectacles the narcissistic tale of a double encounter of omnibulistic cause."  My plan is to use it in my Creative Writing classes to help students look past the particulars of what happens and to think about their own style and tone.  I think a few Queneau-style exercises could go a long way in getting them to reflect on that.

One of the biggest impressions this edition gives is just how difficult this book must have been to translate from Queneau's French.  Translator Barbara Wright has a loose hand--she'd have to--going so far as to change the voice-exercise "Vulgaire" to the English "Cockney," and changing an English-dialect impression chapter to one called " For ze Frrensh."  It also has a number of new homages from writers like Harry Mathews, Ben Marcus, and Jonathan Lethem; my favorite is a send-up of Beat novels by the writer Frederic Tuten:

Whee!  Whee!  The bus curled up to the curb with a mad tragic kind of speech and me and jenny Lou get on behind a guy sporting a baggy blue suit and a blue hat with a hemp band and I can see right away he's not hip but a square fidgeting every time someone jostles him and squirming when more people crowd into the bus but me and Jenny Lou dig being packed in with all the maids and busboys and car wash kids all the the holy ones who work in the dark obsidian laundries and then someone steps on this guy's foot and he lets out a howl like a naked coyote who's seen the invisible night and finally I say to him be cool man and dig the scene dig all the angels here dig the holy chicks and dig the whole ride because the ride is life...


Friday, November 24, 2017

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they belong.

My new wife and I recently went on our mini-moon to Portland, Maine, a lovely but cold town set on the rocky New England coast and ringed with islands.  I've been saving this book for the next time I was in Maine, and as far as local color goes, it didn't disappoint: Jewett's account of a small coastal town in Maine certainly feels unmistakably like a product of its own place and time, as closely tied to its setting as Twain's novels are to the Mississippi River.

The unnamed protagonist of The Country of the Pointed Firs is an older woman writer--probably very closely identified with Jewett herself--who summers in the town of Dunnet Landing, where she rents out an abandoned schoolhouse for her writing and becomes fast friends with another woman named Almira Todd, who is an expert in growing medicinal herbs.  The book unfolds over several summers, as the protagonist gets to know the local denizens of Dunnet Landing better little by little, as well as Almira's simple but loyal family, who live out on one of the harbor islands.  Jewett has a sensitive eye for the habits and personalities of the Mainers of the 19th-century people: proud but unpretentious, friendly but insular, with a propensity for sea travel (they rely on a fishing economy, after all) but unfamiliar with places fifteen miles away by land.

This novel was a challenge for me.  It flouts one of the principles of fiction we hold to be most inviolable: it really has nothing resembling a conflict.  The people of Dunnet Landing undergo hardships, of course; they've buried loved ones and endured harsh winters, which they bear with equanimity, but these things are rarely represented in the narrative.  The protagonist and Almira are friendly with just about everyone; you get the sense that small-town people can't afford to be enemies.  In place of conflict is a series of detailed sketches of Maine life that illuminate the richness in everyday life even as they zero in on characters who are, for lack of a better word, "quirky."

My favorite comes late in the book, when Almira and the protagonist visit a reclusive woman known as "The Queen's Twin," because she shares a birthday with Queen Victoria.  There's a tremendous pathos in the image of the woman, living alone in the Maine woods, but imagining a kind of friendship with a powerful woman across the Atlantic:

"Sometimes I think, now she's older, she might like to know about us.  When I think how few old friends anybody has left at our age, I suppose it may be just the same with her as it is with me; perhaps she would like to know how we came into life together.  But I've had a great advantage in seeing her, an' I can always fancy her goin' on, while she don't know nothin' yet about me, except she may feel my love stayin' in her heart sometimes an' not know just where it comes from.  An' I dream about our being together out in some pretty fields, young as ever we was, and holdin' hands as we walk along."

And yet Jewett is as interested in the walk to the Queen's Twin's house as she is what in what happens there, and lingers for pages and pages over the landscape and the untroubled path of the two visiting friends.  Most of the characters in the novel are women, and older women at that, and the uncomfortable dramalessness of it may reflect a particular mode of existence circumscribed for women in 19th century America.  But I admit to being frustrated by it, and being most interested in the novel when it rises above the quotidian, as with a chilling early tale from a Sea Captain who describes, from secondhand accounts, a terrifying Arctic world of strange shadow-creatures.  It sets a strange tone for the novel that it never returns to, or validates.

My copy of the novel is accompanied by several short stories, most of which tell similar stories about older women visiting older women.  Most of them I have forgotten completely, but a couple stand out: "The White Heron," about a young girl's awakening to the natural world around her in contrast to the rapaciousness of a visiting hunter, and "The Hiltons' Holiday," whose story of a pair of young girls visiting the town for the first time just stands out as being unerringly charming (and which reminds me of a similar account, accompanied by more menace, in Independent People).  But by the time I'd put the book down, I'd had enough of charm, and of local color.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach. We honor anniversaries of deaths by cleaning graves and sitting next to them before fires, sharing food with those who will not eat again. We raise children and tell them other things about who they can be and what they are worth: to us, everything. We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.
I decided to read Ward's Men We Reaped before I knew it was a memoir. I loved her novel, Salvage the Bones, her newest book has a long waiting list at the library, and a friend loaned this one to me on vacation, so all the stars aligned. I'm somewhat wary of memoirs written by 35 year-olds; obviously it's possible to be a talented, insightful writer at that age (and much younger), but memoir seems like it should be reserved for a longer angle lens than 35 years allows. The exception, for me at least, is when the author has a compelling story to tell--something different and divergent enough to warrant reflection. Ward manages to do the opposite and succeed wildly; she tells a story that is all too common and normalized, but she does it with grace, wisdom, and the same novelistic style that made Salvage the Bones such a pleasure to read. Ward's memoir centers around the loss of five men in her life--to violence, drugs, and poverty--and the horrifying regularity with which these losses occur.

Ward consciously weaves forward and backwards in time, so the ghosts of her lost loved ones reappear after their deaths have happened in vignettes and snippets and memory. Her writing is beautiful and sweeping, her sentences tumble into each other even when she is describing crippling sorrow. She is a gripping writer, and the heartbreak of her story only makes it that much more compelling.

I read this soon after reading Margaret Wilkerson Sexton's A Kind of Freedom, and I wish I'd read it closer to Salvage the Bones. New Orleans and its surrounding towns are a part of the country I have little context for, especially when it comes to poor, overlooked communities. This helped set some of that context for me and gave depth to both of those novels after the fact.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Mr. Fortune by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

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

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

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

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

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

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

Lectures on Don Quixote by Vladimir Nabokov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

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

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

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

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

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