Sunday, January 20, 2013

I'm adding Philip Roth to my list of American authors I won't touch with a ten-foot pole, authors whose badness boggles my mind:

Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms)
William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury, Absalom Absalom, Wild Palms)
F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, Tender Is the Night)
Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon)

I just finished Portnoy's Complaint. The book apparently owes a debt to stand-up comedy, and I think is meant to roll the reader along on waves of vitality and "wicked humor" (to quote a reviewer), but — I just didn't find it very funny. I could tell when Roth (or Portnoy) was trying to be funny, I could practically see him winking ("Look at my joke!") but more often than not I had to groan at his lame puns and his contrived Freudian paradoxes. And the ethnic stereotypes — the fact that there's a kernel of truth to them, or that it's done (more or less) with affection, doesn't rescue his characterizations from shallowness.

Otherwise I don't know what to say. Being all about sex doesn't necessarily sink a work — Y Tu Mama Tambien pulls it off. (But it's hard.) A maniacal monologue can be a masterpiece — Hamsun's Hunger. And misogyny can be fascinating: The Kreutzer Sonata. But Roth isn't in that league. (To give him his due: I didn't have any trouble turning the pages. Portnoy's Complaint is an easy read.)

Take a small detail: the totally predictable surprise ending. Roth prefaces it with a little title: "THE PUNCHLINE." I was reminded of a child's drawing complete with labels: "THE SUN." "MOMMY." "MY DOG." That's the kind of clumsiness that characterizes the whole novel, though it's more often filtered through an "adult" sensibility. (To belabor the obvious: adult = arch, annoyingly arch, and adult = pornographic.)

Question: What do the authors listed above (except Hemingway) have in common? Answer: The conviction that more is always better. Melville could really write like this, and so could Whitman, and since then many — perhaps most — American writers have apparently considered it their artistic-patriotic duty to pile it on, structure and style be damned. But what stands out in these twentieth century successors is their lack of control — on every page, in every paragraph a poor word choice, an incoherent metaphor, shaky syntax, choppy transition — and the whole thing teeters and collapses before it's out the door. And there's more: the irrelevant or unwarranted authorial contempt or adulation that seeps through, the wallowing around, the working oneself into a frenzy in the fond hope that the reader will join in — I could go on, but I suppose there's no point if I can't quote and give page numbers. These people write as if they were throwing mud at a wall.

(I hate Hemingway just as much as the others, but he can't fairly be accused of excess. Still, his repression is a symptom of hysteria as tiresome and ostentatious in its own way as the ravings of these others.)

On a happier note: I liked Atonement a lot. Now there's a writer who has the situation under control! According to D. and waggish McEwan can be even too controlled, and I believe it, but Atonement strikes the right balance between the freedom of the characters and the control of the author, thanks to a style tethered by intelligent, patient observation and a brilliant plot — not just a clever plot, but one that sets up a spellbinding moral conflict. The characters come to life in the confrontation with their consciences, and this works even retroactively, even offstage, when we only hear about them from other characters.
I liked — loved — the clever post-modern touch of the very thoughtful letter from the editor of Horizon, not so much the clever post-modern touch of the ending… but I don't want to give anything away.

Fun fact: McEwan likes Roth. He said so himself, in an interview. I don't know what to make of that. (generation?)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Literature and Science

Currents similar to those of the hairs of the nettle have been observed in a great multitude of very different plants, and weighty authorities have suggested that they probably occur, in more or less perfection, in all young vegetable cells. If such be the case, the wonderful noonday silence of a tropical forest is, after all, due only to the dulness of our hearing; and could our ears catch the murmur of these tiny Maelstroms, as they whirl in the innumerable myriads of living cells which constitute each tree, we should be stunned, as with the roar of a great city.

— Thomas Henry Huxley, "The Physical Basis of Life," 1869

If we had a keen vision of all that is ordinary in human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which is the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

— George Eliot, Middlemarch, 1871-2 (begun 1869)

Huxley's essay comes close on the heels (in my anthology) of Matthew Arnold's "Literature and Science," in which Arnold argues that the humanities will always have a place in education, because we have a "desire" for "conduct" and "beauty." Studying science (at the schoolboy level — he doesn't mean research) is like piling up so many interesting facts — interesting, but not meaningful; the student is left spiritually hungry. I don't think he argues very well, and he doesn't even write as well as Huxley, but essentially I agree with him. (It doesn't help to put the argument in either/or terms, which is how he starts out, apparently taking his cue from Huxley. But he goes on to frame the question more cautiously — "will always have a place.")

However, you could say — George Eliot may suggest — that the habit of observation that science cultivates in its students, of paying attention, is preparation for a moral life. (Paying attention: there's a lot on this in the chapter "Seeing" in Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

Huxley argues enthusiastically that the writers of the future will take inspiration from science. George Eliot (probably) did. And I read this in Edith Wharton's memoir A Backward Glance:

In looking back over my memories of Theodore Roosevelt I am surprised to find how very seldom I saw him, and yet how sure I am that he was my friend. He had the rare gift of bridging over in an instant those long intervals between meetings that so often benumb even the best of friends, and he was so alive at all points, and so gifted with the rare faculty of living intensely and entirely in every moment as it passed, that each of those encounters glows in me like a morsel of radium.

What struck me is how little of this there is in twentieth century writing. Does her last word ring false only because we now know that radium causes cancer, or is it the case that this is an impulse that didn't go anywhere? How common are metaphors based on (for example) the double helix? How successful are they?
I'm about to read Michael Frayn's Copenhagen — I saw it a few years ago — and, yes, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle is all over that play. But that's not the sort of thing one can refer to off-handedly.

A Backward Glance: interesting, but really only for die-hard fans of Wharton. It's really like a big thank you to all the wonderful people she's known, too polite to be revealing. At first I found all the name dropping irritating, but then it occurred to me that she's not showing off; on the contrary, she's being modest: "My life is interesting only insofar as I've known interesting people." But only her portraits of Henry James and Theodore Roosevelt are satisfying; the other sketches are at best only tantalizing. (Not a bad thing: I've put on my to read list some totally forgotten novels by various contemporaries, mainly friends, that she warmly recommends: David Graham Phillips's Susan Lenox, Robert Grant's Unleavened Bread, Howard Sturgis's Belchamber. She also loves The Egoist and Harry Richmond by George Meredith, who may not be forgotten, but — I don't know anyone who's read him. On to my list.)
So for her strained relationship with her mother, the failure of her marriage, etc., I'll have to go to Hermione Lee's biography. But I'm glad I got Wharton's view — "glance" — first.

This is funny:

…the first time I went to Washington after [the Roosevelts] were installed in the White House I was promptly summoned to lunch, and welcomed on the threshold by the President's vehement cry: "At last I can quote 'The Hunting of the Snark'!" "Would you believe it," he added, "no one in the Administration has ever heard of Alice, much less of the Snark, and the other day, when I said to the Secretary of the Navy: 'Mr. Secretary, What I say three times is true,' he did not recognize the allusion, and answered with an aggrieved air: 'Mr. President, it would never for a moment have occurred to me to impugn your veracity'!"

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bought at Unnameable Books: Anne of Avonlea, signed

Mary S. Brinton
Xmas 1909

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Paris 1919

On November 11 I went to see the documentary Paris 1919 by Paul Cowan. The film mixes original footage with (usually silent) recreations, in color, of scenes for which footage is lacking: diplomats and cartographers at work or taking a stroll, the attempted assassination of Clemenceau, a German negotiator who resigned, back home at the dinner table with his wife and children. Most of the talking is voice-over narration, which relies heavily on the letters and diaries of Harold Nicholson, John Maynard Keynes, and one of the German negotiators. The actors seldom speak, so that when they do we sit on the edge of our chairs. There are no talking heads to break the tension and help provide perspective; it is all painfully close and inexorable. I was a bit uneasy about the format of the film before I saw it — who needs a frivolous mixture of fact and fiction about the events of 1919? — but was soon won over. I can't recommend it highly enough; it's one of the best historical documentaries I've ever seen.

Here's what I learned:
Lloyd George, who had done so much to stir up revenge hysteria in his recent electoral campaign, at the very end pleaded with Wilson for a more generous settlement with Germany. But by then Clemenceau had won Wilson over, and the American president, who had expended so much energy in trying to moderate French and British demands, dug in his heels on the other side. Why? Had Clemenceau really convinced him? Or was he eager to get the conference over with so that he could go back to the US to campaign for the League of Nations? And why did Lloyd George have a change of heart? Had Keynes convinced him, finally, that Germany was capable of paying only a small fraction of what Lloyd George had promised the British public?

An armistice is not the same thing as capitulation. One learns that Germany lost WWI, and one assumes (or at least I did), that it was a case of utter defeat, like WWII. But no: an armistice is a truce; the German negotiators went to Paris expecting to negotiate, not to have the terms of the peace dictated to them. Of course, they were anxious about their reception; on the train into France they are shown busily drafting arguments showing, on the basis of international law, that the war was justified, or that Germany was not solely responsible, or that all sides engaged in atrocities. The long suspense, as the German delegation does its homework in an unheated hotel, their shock upon receiving a copy of the draft treaty, and the speech of their chief negotiator before the assembled diplomats are among the high points.

A small, memorable detail: the Germans suspected that their hotel was bugged, and so they played Wagner on the gramophone all day, at high volume. After they saw the draft treaty, however, they turned off the gramophone. Why? In despair? Or was it a way of saying to the French, "We have no important secrets to keep from you; go ahead, listen in."

But the film does not focus exclusively on the main actors; it also does a good job of evoking the myriad negotiations that settled borders, with fateful consequences, all over the globe, from Africa, to Iraq and China.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

argh... New comments on David Brooks's latest column, "The Next Culture War," are no longer being accepted, so I'll have to vent here. Many readers have correctly pointed out that Brooks fails to put any blame for our current "decadence, corruption, and decline" on Ronald Reagan and his followers, that he fails to credit Roosevelt and the New Deal for our erstwhile restraint, and that past bubbles were also caused by lack of regulations, and others have noted the odious American exceptionalism of his introduction (as if working hard were a peculiarly American trait!). What struck me was this:

Government was limited and did not protect people from the consequences of their actions, thus enforcing discipline and restraint.

When economic values did erode, the ruling establishment tried to restore balance. After the Gilded Age, Theodore Roosevelt (who ventured west to counteract the softness of his upbringing) led a crackdown on financial self-indulgence.

Brooks ignores the fact that big government was born with Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive effort to "restore balance." In other words, the limited government Brooks praises in one sentence is exactly the opposite of the "crackdown on financial self-indulgence" that he also praises in the next sentence. It's symptomatic of Brooks's authoritarian sympathies that he disdains our elected government but instinctively admires the "ruling establishment."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

For a while my father received frequent visits from Jehovah's witnesses. Often he wouldn't answer — he claimed he had learned to recognize the way they rang the bell — but sometimes he would invite them in, offer them tea, and chat with them about the Bible. One story he often brought up was the sacrifice of Isaac. "I cannot — I cannot believe in a God who makes such a monstrous request. If God came to me and told me to sacrifice my daughter to him I would tell him to get lost!" My mother often enough makes the obvious point that God is merely testing Abraham's faith, which does not assuage my father. But he was intrigued by the explanation that the Jehovah's witnesses offered: God had promised to multiply Abraham's seed, so Abraham had to know that God was bluffing. (Of course this explanation doesn't take Ishmael into account.)

I've always been interested in myths about the end of human sacrifice (for example, Iphigenia in Tauris). This is one I read today:

Jupiter demands human sacrifice from Numa Pompilius, Romulus's successor as king of Rome. Specifically, he wants a human head. Numa is shocked and dismayed by the unspeakable request. He thinks long and hard about what he should do. The day for the ceremony comes. The city (or more likely: village of mud huts) is all decked out, the ritual reaches its climax, and Numa offers Jupiter — an enormous onion. Jupiter's reaction? He laughs. He claps Numa on the back. He likes the joke.

James Wood writes, in The Irresponsible Self, that the laughter of the gods is crude and cruel, viz. they laugh at limping Hephaestus, they laugh at Ares and Aphrodite caught in a net in adulterous embrace. Jupiter's laugh in this Roman myth seems a good counterexample with its mixture of shame, appreciation, and forgiveness.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

started, but not finished

Civilwarland in Bad Decline, by George Saunders
I read most of the short stories in this collection a week ago and already I'm having trouble remembering them. (I didn't get to the novella that takes up the second half of this small volume.) The writing is extremely flat and simple. No doubt there are good reasons for this — the world Saunders describes is stark and grotesque, his characters mostly boobs or sadists — but I find it hard to stay interested in flat writing. (Saunders's one stylistic novelty, the use of truly awful corporate jargon throughout his characters' interior monologues, was funny at first but then got boring.) And the plots were depressingly similar: they all involve a horrible, cartoonish accidental death. There's real misery in these stories — the characters hate their jobs, have no friends, get divorced — and in that context I didn't know what to make of the gruesome accidental death as the climax of each story. I was bored and bewildered. So I stopped. (Kaveri said the first short story was the best, and if I didn't like it I should stop. I soldiered on until I had read most of the stories, then gave up.)

Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky
Marion recommended this, and I eagerly went out and bought the French edition. Then I read Ruth Franklin's rather damning critique, and began to regret my purchase. But then I was still determined to read it, if only to practice my French.
I disliked it immediately. This is a novel in which a teenager goes into his room, slams the door and thinks, "I hate my family!" — and this counts as characterization. The mistress of a vain, selfish, snobbish writer sits on the floor gathering up the finished pages that he drops from his desk. And so on, one cliché after another. (So anti-semitism is only one aspect of her simple-mindedness.) Even the random observed details, contrasting the beauty of nature or the everyday concerns of people with the chaos of war seem drearily contrived, probably because the whole machinery is so creaky. (If I read the end of All Quiet on the Western Front fresh from Suite Française I'd probably be disgusted, even though I was very moved when I read it the first time.)
But I had read 97 pages, and was determined to finish at least the first novel in the volume (which consists of the first two of five projected novels on France at war, the ones Némirovsky completed). Then I re-read Franklin's review, and this sentence struck me:

There are many exquisite moments in Suite Française: the hypocritical generosity of Madame Péricand, her teenage son Hubert's reckless patriotism, the romance between Jean-Marie Michaud and the peasant girl who nurses him, and other indelible scenes.

I did not find the hypocritical generosity of Madame Péricand an exquisite moment; for me it was as revoltingly bad as everything else. If I like Némirovsky less than Ruth Franklin, I thought, I should stop. So I've stopped, as of now.

It was interesting to read Suite Française right after Atonement: one section of Atonement is set during the French collapse in June 1940. Némirovsky lived through it and McEwan didn't, but his description of the retreat is about a hundred times better than hers.

I was also reminded of Alice Kaplan's excellent analysis of the fiction of Robert Brasillach, another French anti-semite whose novels and journalism enjoyed great success in the 1930s. She writes that he has two modes, mawkishness and contempt, and never had the toughness of mind to achieve a synthesis. That's true of Némirovsky as well. Kaplan calls this the right-wing style (so did Kaveri, in another context!) and that makes sense to me.
Von Rezzori's Memoirs of an Anti-Semite also offered lots of insights into the mind of a reactionary, though he writes much better than Némirovsky, and turns the mirror on himself.