Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dinner at Antoine's by Frances Parkinson Keyes

Oh, dear. I thought the novel was going to be about the famed New Orleans restaurant, or about food in some way. Not so. If you want to find out who murdered the invalid Odile St.-Amant -- was it her estranged husband, Léonce? her sister, Caresse, who is also carrying on with him? -- I'm sorry but you will have to read further than I did. Frances Parkinson Keyes has an atrocious ear for dialogue, despite her prose being good. So atrocious is it that I had to put the thing aside in disgust. And yes, I did struggle manfully past the first chapter, where I had to read things like this (it's Orson Foxworth speaking):

" dear, the fascinating creature clinging to my arm is Amelie Lalande, the envy of all lesser charmers. I see that Odile's already made up for my negligence by introducing herself, and perhaps she's told you which is really her sister and which is really her husband. Yes? Well, I thought so. The Viking-looking chap on the other side of Caresse is Russ Aldridge -- Russell Wainwright Aldridge, Ph.D. -- a fast man with a hieroglyph, a drink, a samba, and a back-to-back pair of Jacks, in the order named! And finally, Dr. Perrault, who painted tonsils for Odile and Caresse when they were only knee-high to a puddle duck. But they don't hold that against him and you needn't either .... Have you had a drink yet? As you see, some of our guests got desperate because we were so late and very wisely started in on Sazeracs." 

And it goes on and on. The worst is when the characters are made to think to themselves, in italics. Parkinson Keyes was very prolific in a time when (and readers of Vellum will recognize a theme) the American publishing industry simply seems to have put out better books than it does now -- so I can only hope that Dinner at Antoine's was an anomaly among her works. If I discover that Blue Camellia or Station Wagon in Spain were any better, I will try to report so as soon as possible.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Godfrey of Bouillon, Defender of the Holy Sepulchre by Tom Tozer

This was a new experience. I turned on my Kindle -- bless its heart -- and searched the keyword Godfrey, because I had just encountered a lengthy and rather turbid poem of G.K. Chesterton's which sang, in part,
... the voice that shook our palaces -- four hundred years ago:
It is he that saith not 'Kismet'; it is he that knows not Fate;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey at the gate!"
The Kindle store promptly found, and offered me the chance to buy, a title called Godfrey of Bouillon, Defender of the Holy Sepulcher, for $2.99. Published in 2005. Well, why not?

I am familiar with the once legitimately-published but now out-of-copyright books hosted at Project Gutenberg, but this was the first time I had bought anything sight unseen from Kindle, only. Was it a reprint of something just as old, or might it be a recent bestseller in a genre that I was ignorant of? 

Neither. The book is a self-published short novel, put out by a vanity press or POD (publish on demand) company -- in this case, PublishAmerica, whose reputation in the bookselling industry seems to be even worse than that of most such places. Red flag to prospective authors: PublishAmerica does not accept returns, from bookstores, of its unsold product. Why does this matter? Because Legitimate Press A would do so. Legitimate Press A invests time and money in a writer because it judges the writer's content is marketable; if it turns out that new author Miss Smith's book doesn't sell, Legitimate Press A does not stick its bookstore clients with stacks of it, but takes the rotten apple back like a good merchant, writes off the loss, and perhaps doesn't deal with Miss Smith again.

Not so PublishAmerica, which has given us Godfrey of Bouillon exactly as Mr. Tom Tozer gave it to them. Godfrey inspires this interest in the workings of the publishing world because the novel itself inspires almost none. Now, to be fair, I read it, I finished it. The prose is acceptable, some passages even rather nice. But as you skim along, without benefit of any information about the book at all, no dust jacket blurbs, no logrolling, no "advance praise," the realization slowly grows that this is an amateur.

The book is very short, for one thing, probably not more than 120 pages in a print version, if that. Short books can be good, and long novels can be bad, but any professional -- no matter how many rejection slips he has gathered -- knows that to be taken seriously he must make his manuscript, for better or worse, a certain length. As to the content, there are people and there are events in the story, but the events roll by as they were culled from popular histories of the Crusades, and the people are little more than names which the writer has learned from the same. There is the battle of Ascalon, there are Godfrey, Eustace, and Ida. No character develops in any way nor has any vital relationship with any other. If this manuscript had remotely got past the first desk in the slush pile at a New York publishing house, any editor (likely a woman) would have immediately insisted at the least on many more women, and much more romance. Our author, bless him, is a man who likes the Crusades, not all that folderol. There are also some outright mistakes. Surely no character in 1096 is going to say " 'The Pope can no more turn bread into the body of God than he can turn a frog into a potato.' " And no, it's not the disrespect shown the Pope that is anachronistic here.    

And yet. There is a curious freshness to the book. I believe it must come from the author's love of the subject and from his creation of a work of art outside the sacred precincts of that New York publishing world, where talent does batter down the doors sometimes, but where a great many submission guidelines also read like instructions for candidates in the Mandarin examinations of imperial China. ("Excellence is really our only criterion. That said, however -- race, class, and gender, etc. -- if you must trumpet your religion, do it with grace and style -- racist or bigoted characters must be seen to be defeated -- children must solve a unisex problem not involving war, death, or illness," etc.) Those guidelines produce books as stale as can be, books which read like examination papers more than stories. Only last night, I tried another sample on Kindle of a new, correctly published and accredited biography of the saints Brigid (early medieval Ireland) and Genevieve (early medieval Paris). Who knew that the people of that far away time would have spent so much time thinking, in the most painfully fusty academic terms, about gender and sacral spaces? Needless to say, I didn't buy that one. By contrast, Godfrey's freshness in the end even has a  medieval feel to it. Mr. Tozer seems to have captured something of what we imagine to be the eleventh century's flaming, personal Christian passion, as well as something of a medieval chroniclers' bland, sometimes maddeningly distant and unreflective voice ("what I have told you is truly what I have seen and heard, and I have no more to add to it").  

So. Here is an example, for history's sake, of what does not batter down the doors, what does not escape the slush pile, what does not pass the imperial Mandarin examinations. We'll let Mr. Tozer end with this: does this deserve never to have seen the light of day? Ida speaks.
"It is all like a vast poem. We know how it begins, and we know how it ends, and we know that all together it is beautiful. But we live in the middle, between the light and the glory. And thus we do not know what lines we write with our own lives every day. But, with God's help, we can write lines with our  lives that deserve a place in His song."  

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

Very fun fluff from the mistress of intelligent, if somewhat pedestrian, fluff -- just the thing to devour on a day off, when you have decided to try for the first time that old-fashioned egg-and-mayonnaise treatment supposed to be so good for lustrous hair. This experiment entails a lot of sitting around, with your head swathed in plastic wrap and a towel, so why not read? 

It's a tale of a country village murder, just as Agatha Christie invented it. Well done. Certainly we never see the murderer coming. And it's a Miss Marple tale, too, although that delightful lady, frustratingly, does not show up until the story is five-sixths finished. She is much more visible in the short stories that bear her name, rather than in the novels. As for the romance between Jerry and Megan, that is a little stiff. Bravo to Christie for trying to imagine herself into the mind of a man abruptly in love, but her sensibilities just aren't quite in it. Jerry limping on his "sticks" is too elderly and Megan too childlike for them to be convincing as a pair. Effeminate Mr. Pye is far more fun. (He reminds me of Georgie in the Mapp and Lucia novels.) "And then," he gushes the only time we meet him, "the dreadful old woman died, but of course it was far too late then. They just went on living there and talking in hushed voices about what poor Mamma would have wished."

Christie is at her best with old ladies like Mr. Pye or the five elderly spinsters whom he is gossiping about, or indeed with Miss Marple. I've always liked the way she uses sharp-as-a-tack old women to comment upon the twentieth century's mostly direful social changes. Her old ladies always know the routine of a correctly run country house, or what to wear to what occasions, but more importantly they know how to spot an unscrupulous man, or when to sack an unsatisfactory housemaid and never mind compassion for the lower orders, she's a thief who doesn't deserve a good reference which she would then use to prey on her next employer. The old ladies know "wickedness," and that human nature has not changed no matter that we've freed ourselves from corsets, hats, and (we imagine) bigotry and prejudice, not to mention silly old-fashioned inhibitions on our marvelous self-expression. It's all very refreshing. In one of her gentle arguments with her nephew Raymond, who is a very modern and enlightened and compassionate writer, Miss Marple notes what happens when whole generations decide to chuck most of what their ancestors knew about life. "Young people," she sighs, "say things that were never talked about in my day, but their minds are so terribly innocent ...." 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A rare find

The Storm, by Frances Sarah Moore (1951)

To surf the gigantic universe of book review blogs is to wonder at the news and opinions of people who read more than I do. ("Loved it loved it LOVED IT!") To saunter about bookstores and libraries is to gape at the stacks of new fiction. All the fresh stiff books are so impressively thick and gorgeously produced, their jacket paintings, lettering, and design absolute works of art. But I open them to meet repeated disappointment.

When it comes to reading perhaps I should allow that my standards might be downright petty. I'm annoyed, for instance, by the gimmick of the novel written in the present tense ("It's daylight. Blood drips down her arm ....") Why use a square wheel for five hundred solid pages when the round one -- the past tense -- has served so well? I'm annoyed by the gimmick of the novel written in bad English, because the narrator is a plucky servant or other uneducated character. Mark Twain could do this; you and I cannot, much. I'm annoyed when a novel, set in the seventeenth century, uses politically correct 21st-century American terms for today's approved grievance groups ("the Romany [gypsy] woman"). I'm annoyed by pointless, laughable vulgarity, and mind you I do read basic, porn-heavy romance novels with good cheer, so it's not a question of prudery. A year or so ago, I came across one very beautiful and interesting-looking new novel, set in Renaissance Florence, which opened with a description of the dead body of a nun, shockingly discovered to be tattooed with a giant snake which curled around her form until its head and tongue reached her private parts. That, my friends, shrieks "lack of talent" on the part of the writer. Anyone with something valuable to say need not begin quite so. Needless to add I didn't buy the book, nor look for it at the library.

Because bookstores with their fresh thick beautiful stacks so uniformly disappoint, I turn to the library for books like the one in the photo above: unadorned, unknown, old. I look for books published before all fiction came out of university writing programs, and before nearly all publishing houses -- it seems -- mass-hired editors who like and expect to promote fiction from university writing programs. This last claim about the weight of university training in the modern market comes from an article I read online just in the last month, which struck me as very pat but which I regret I can't find again. (I hope you'll trust me on this.) The author declared that 13 of the 15 most recent recipients of some prestigious prize or other, or honorees on some bestseller list or other, had all come out of university creative writing departments. We the readers' fond image of the "lone visionary" scribbling private truths was long since passé, this commentator explained.

It shows. So much modern fiction, when it is not being annoying through its gimmickry or its political correctness or its silly vulgarity, has the feel of being competently assembled rather than written. Perhaps that comes from young people being taught, en masse, how to write: not in the necessary sense of being taught grammar, but in the sense of being taught how to "create conflict" or "write compelling dialogue." And the dream of the six-figure movie deal surely hangs over a lot of modern output. So many chapters seem to be framed visually rather than written out by a mind which is trying to describe the visual through graceful language (there's a difference). So much action is painstakingly plodded through as if to make a future set director's instructions perfectly clear. Scene after scene ends with wooden Excitement. "Professor. You've got to get down here. Now." And, cut.

So I turn to old books, when I can find them. The quest is getting difficult even in the library. My local one assiduously purges, eliminating what has not circulated enough and donating it all to the Book Sale room, which does a whopping business at the monthly Friends of the Library extravaganzas. The purging in turn makes space for more of today's fiction which, by the way, you will still be able to spot fifty years from now even if it is all bereft of its opulent jacketing, and looks as humbly intriguing as The Storm. A lot of it will have titles like The Curious Case of the Tree that was Blue, Jumping on Silk Trampolines with Boys Who Paint, or The Secret Life of my Nephew's Glasses. A lot of it will struggle to reach sophomoric (literally, university level) moral conclusions -- and that is especially true of the painfully serious books brooding over academia's approved topics, race, class, and gender. My favorite was a tremblingly meaningful final pronouncement from a best seller of ten years ago, viz., that the Civil War was "fought to decide how we're going to feel about each other." Really. News to the soldiers, I'll bet.

To be fair, if my tastes are so very exalted and I like such old books, I could simply turn only to the profoundest classics, which the library does for the moment keep on its shelves. But a diet of just Dickens and Shakespeare and Conrad, even if anybody could remotely follow it, needs some leavening. Besides, I'm curious. Dickens and Shakespeare and Conrad were once the latest thing. Have they no descendants among us at all? I like to hunt old books to find that out, or to find out at least what good or even yeoman talent was still accomplishing forty and more years ago, before today's gatekeepers took up their stations with such -- well, finality, it seems. It's hard to believe splendid imaginative ability really vanished from the English speaking world around 1975.

Now, enter The Storm. It's a plain-Jane little novel, written in plain-Jane prose and printed in a rather large typeface too, about a young couple who meet and become serious despite both bearing cynical views on marriage. It opens, startlingly, with a view of a bad marriage between an elderly rural minister and his wife -- in 1951. Where did Frances Sarah Moore get the idea? We imagine everybody before us was so innocent, so conformist, so unwilling to explore darkness. And it closes, satisfyingly, with the writer's attempt at honest summings-up on large human topics, as she sees them, not as she and her classmates have been taught to see them. There is a difference, evident in the feeling of truth and private effort that is missing from the final pages of modern fiction.

There is also something very important in The Storm, which I delight to find and which almost never appears in modern books, university-bred as they are. It's the natural, unexplained reference to classic literature, to the fact that bits of Western knowledge were once ingrained in almost every Western person and therefore a normal part of fictional characters' backgrounds, too. Here Julia is speaking with her married lover (in 1951!):

"I love you, Julia. I don't want to hurt you. I am afraid I am taking advantage of you."
"Of my youth?" she jeered. "I am old, Father William."
He smiled a little at Alice's misquoted Young Man.

That's it. The only reason I recognize this is because I saw the Disney movie Alice in Wonderland about a million times when my children were younger, and I think it fairly faithfully mirrors the book. Tweedledum and Tweedledee sing " 'You are old, Father William,' the Young Man said" -- and from there you can walk the reference back, and see why Frances Sarah Moore has someone "smile a little at Alice's misquoted Young Man."

Even though The Storm is a completely ordinary book, this small point is a far more worthy and even exciting indication of a forgotten, sincere ability quietly at work, than all the pasteboard details shoveled into a new novel, whose bulk nevertheless bores with its drab language and its human emptiness. My own favorite, historical fiction, seems especially impoverished. So, a medieval child might wear a necklace made of hedgehog's teeth? That's good research -- and good research is lavishly praised on the backs of book jackets -- no one could make that up. I'm glad to know it. And right on page 1, too. Someone's been told to capture the reader's attention right away. But beyond the hedgehog's teeth, what is it about this particular subject of this huge novel, this king's mistress, what is it about retelling her life that has fulfilled this writer's need to express the truths he knows? When Frances Sarah Moore writes about the elderly couple salvaging their marriage, or about what it means for a life's work to be obscure or not, valuable or not, I sense that she has sat alone, maybe in a room resounding with the din of a driving ice storm just like the one she describes, and has thought out some important things to her own satisfaction, which she then tenders respectfully to the reader. Any reader. Even sixty years on. Today's vetted writers have not done that, nor would it occur to them to try. They've been trained to dazzle, with competent arrangements and striking anecdotes, people trained to be dazzled by them. It's all so remarkably dull.   

Now the clever reader might point at me and say, "It's all sour grapes. Nobody wanted your novel and you've never done the digging needed to write a paying historical or romantic sizzler, so you're mad."

Maybe. It's true that I find nothing particularly feeding to the soul in making up fiction. I admire those who do it well, and I even admire the energy of those who do it poorly. Maybe some of us are born diarists, for what that's worth. (Maybe we can flatter ourselves that, as Marcus Aurelius instructed, we "write for the gods.") But I'm also still a would-be consumer of modern books, and in that humble role I'm still confused by the vast sunlit desert wastes before me. Where is the talent? And you wonderful bloggers who devour a dozen books a month, exulting how you "loved it loved it LOVED it." What exactly are you loving?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

I haven't actually stopped reading

The trouble is, a Kindle allows you to read so much at once. The Works of Lord Byron, vol. 1 -- here, the teenaged genius discusses his annoying mother:

... though timely Severity may sometimes be necessary & justifiable, surely a peevish harassing System of Torment is by no means commendable, & when that is interrupted by ridiculous Indulgence, the only purpose answered is to soften the feelings for a moment which are soon after to be doubly wounded by the recal of accustomed Harshness. I will now give this disagreeable Subject to the Winds.

And he writes a lot about his debts and his weight loss. It is interesting and encouraging, though, to see him grow up, to read him become sympathetic, self-deprecating even about his poetry, and humbly anxious to maintain old friendships. "I do not know how far our destinations in life may throw us together, but if opportunity and inclination allow you to waste a thought on such a hare-brained being as myself, you will find me at least sincere, and not so bigoted to my faults as to involve others in the consequences."  Old men kept his letters for fifty years.

Lays of Ancient Rome, Thomas Babington MacAulay. The Victorian schoolboy of legend read it or was assigned to read it, and out of it all, memorized it seems mostly this:

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods...."

I liked the scholarly prose discussion of what happened to Rome's pre-imperial historical documents better than the poetry which MacAulay invented to try to recreate something of what they had said. It seems the Gauls burned Rome's archives in the 4th century B.C.E. when they sacked the city, and that Roman historians of later centuries knew perfectly well they had no documents upon which to base anything they wrote or thought they knew about that time. They had only, it seems, memories of popular legend and poetry; it would be as if American historians could only reconstruct the colonial period from childlike songs about Paul Revere's ride, or Washington crossing the Delaware. MacAulay's Lays are his imaginative reconstructions of what those word of mouth songs might have been; they concern the biggest topics of remote Roman history, like Rome's wars against more powerful Italian neighbors, or the class struggles between patrician and plebeian. It's astonishing, what MacAulay understood his readers would already know about what he was doing.

The loves of the Vestal and the God of War, the cradle laid among the reeds of the Tiber, the fig-tree, the she-wolf, the shepherd's cabin, the recognition, the fratricide, the rape of the Sabines, the death of Tarpeia, the fall of Hostus Hostilius, the struggle of Mettus Curtius through the marsh, the women rushing with torn raiment and dishevelled hair between their fathers and their husbands, the nightly meetings of Numa and the Nymph by the well in the sacred grove, the fight of the three Romans and the three Albans, the purchase of the Sibylline books, the crime of Tullia, the simulated madness of Brutus, the ambiguous reply of the Delphian oracle to the Tarquins, the wrongs of Lucretia, the heroic actions of Horatius Cocles, of Scaevola, and of Cloelia, the battle of Regillus won by the aid of Castor and Pollux, the defense of Cremera, the touching story of Coriolanus, the still more touching story of Virginia, the wild legend about the draining of the Alban lake, the combat between Valerius Corvus and the gigantic Gaul, are among the many instances which will at once suggest themselves to every reader.

Victorian Short Stories of Troubled Marriages. Not at all what you might think -- not at all gamy little exposes of Victorian marriages that were troubled, as written by the men and women involved. Rather, simply short stories by a variety of Victorian authors, Kipling, Conan Doyle, etc., about characters in troubled marriages. Kipling's "The Bronckhorst Divorce Case" was not very interesting, and I have yet to move on to Doyle's "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange."

Also on my Kindle home page are the Life, Letters, and Epicurean Philosophy of Ninon de l'Enclos -- very strange; are the French really that different? When she warbles on about "love," does she mean sex, does she mean the love that makes a couple married sixty years nurse one another through the last illnesses, or does she mean a kind of freewheeling indulgence (including sex), of every new crush that comes along and excites you and flatters your vanity? -- on the grounds that indulging so is only human nature and therefore one must be humane and sophisticated and true to it? 

The White House Cookbook. The Rubaiyat of a Huffy Husband. The Spectator. Under Two Flags by Ouida, who I think was somehow scandalous and terribly popular in another era. The Chaplet of Pearls by Charlotte Yonge, ditto. Confessions of an English Opium Eater, certainly ditto. Aristotle. Twenty-four Little French Dinners ... not by Aristotle, that last.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer

I salute the lady's research. To have found out that people ate mutton with cucumbers in the late eighteenth century, and that a certain part of a country house's grounds, between the gravel walk and a wicket gate, could be called a "ha ha," indicates a writer with a respect for her task and her readers.

I salute her plotting, really incredibly extravagant, what with all the different servants, villains, women,  Excisemen, and passersby who had to be put on station in order for Ludovic to finally break into the Dower House and search for the ring and yet endure just the right amount of danger before rescue by the dark and brooding Sir Tristram. And this is just one thread of the story.

Rescue -- which reminds me. I salute her integrity, too. The Talisman Ring was published in 1937. This was before the days when romance novels became a mere setting for a requisite number of porn scenes stuck like big fake pearls on big fake jewelry, offered up and turned this way and that for the admiration of otherwise respectable middle-class, middle aged women. The closer a romance novel's publication date comes to our own time, the more Hustler-like and ridiculous these scenes become. But seventy years ago, no: not only is there no gasping and striving and probing, but Sir Tristram rescues his cousin Ludovic, and not the tempestuous heroine (a few such rescues are also de rigueur in today's romances), because it made sense according to the workings of the plot for the men to be involved in this particular dangerous nighttime adventure, and not the women.

So I salute Miss Heyer for all these virtues. We mustn't forget to throw in enjoyable conversation and pleasant characters, too. I'm only a little disappointed that the plot she had led her readers to believe would be It, turns out not to be It. What could have been a delicately handled and yes, perhaps even tempestuous arranged marriage between Sir Tristram and Eustacie is instead put aside for matters that are, well, let's say -- extravagantly plotted.

I feel sure Georgette Heyer has done better things than The Talisman Ring. I'm not sure I will run out and search for them immediately.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Two ghost stories

What makes a ghost frightening? That it is more alive than we are. 

From The Norton Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Brad Leithauser (1994), come these two to start a collection. First is Ann Bridge's marvelous "The Buick Saloon," originally published in 1936. An exotic setting -- the foreign Legation in Peking in the 1930s -- a dumpy little diplomatic wife who hears a disembodied female voice speaking French in the back of her chauffeured car; there is little more to be said, because to say too much more would be to reveal too much and spoil it all. Suffice it that Ann Bridge (pen name of Lady Mary Dolling Sanders O'Malley, English diplomat's wife) is, if not the find of a lifetime, at least the find of a good long time, for any appreciative reader. Just listen:

Below her Peking lay spread out -- a city turned by the trees which grow in every courtyard into the semblance of a green wood, out of which rose the immense golden roofs of the Forbidden City; beyond it, far away, the faint mauve line of the Western Hills hung on the sky. 

And then she turns to overlook the old garden in the house by the Tartar wall, where the French voice had once been happy.

In the same anthology we find "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes," by Henry James (1868). Certainly he is a grander writer, one of the evidences of which I think is that unobtrusive, but always present, arch-browed humor which seems the mark of a master. But as a ghost story this one is less effective than Ann Bridge's. If ghosts are frightening because they are more alive than we are, then the ghost of this Romance is neither terribly alive nor terribly frightening.

Here we follow two sisters in colonial Massachusetts as they fight, very quietly, over one well-to-do English suitor. When he picks one of them, the other must make the best of it. Rosalind and Perdita were neither very loving nor very hateful toward one another to begin with, so there is no question of a ruined sisterly love or a further embittered hate. When one of them becomes a ghost, it really is all about the clothes. The creepiest moment of the story occurs when they are both still living and polite. The betrothed sister plumbs the depths of the other's jealousy and quietly says, " 'At least grant me a year. In a year I can have a little boy, or even a little girl ....' "

The ghost story genre is a challenging one. A writer has to get the scope and the pace of the visitation(s) just right, or else the delicate souffle of fear, fantasy, and plausibility collapses. It collapses, I think, even for Ann Bridge in her "The Song in the House," contained in a different anthology -- The Fireside Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Edward Wagenknecht (1947). It's another beautiful story, but, a whole gardenful of bejeweled Elizabethan ghosts, and all in broad daylight? Alas, no.  

Curiously enough, Ann Bridge's papers, thirty boxes of them, are now at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Someone gave them as a gift in 1975, the year after her death. It seems rather an abrupt document dump. I hope she doesn't haunt the place.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Bostonians by Henry James

From my "Book Lover's Journal," January 2002

Most excellent. Surprised the feminist movement survived it. However, if it was a "failure" when it first came out, I can see why: it all hinges on the character of Olive Chancellor, and there is no reason for her to be as she is, at least no explanation -- though perhaps that is James' point. She is like Iago, totally rational and totally malicious -- but why?

I suppose the theme of the novel is that people are going to do what they like, and always have, and that the purpose of life is to be true to oneself (like Miss Birdseye, who is a radical), and not to give oneself over to a cause, even a cause for freedom. Subjection to a cause always leads to obedience: the Boston audience howling for Verena at the end. As for oppression, not a single woman in the book is beholden to anyone, except perhaps Olive herself, who at the end has a male agent, Mr. Filer. Obedience being the price of belonging, James would not be at all surprised to find today that the feminist movement's demand now is that all women work, and wish to work. As for Basil Ransom, he, like Miss Birdseye, is one of the few characters true to himself -- and true to the absolute truth, love -- but even with him, James has "not cheated." He really does want women to stay home and make men happy. Or so he protests. He also "sits on fences" for them.

A curious note: I think James cannot describe the American landscape. He has no feel for it -- he describes it as if from a map, with no real smells, sounds, details, love.

As for Verena: a pure and lovely creature, yet, as such, her subjection to the horror of Olive also makes little sense. I feel James knew none of these people, except Ransom and Birdseye; the rest are types, set to lay a scene.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Long Secret by Louise Fitzhugh

I have re-read with pleasure, in the course of a few hot summer nights, this classic book from my childhood and classic of modern children's literature. I always liked The Long Secret even better than its precursor and companion story, Harriet the Spy, because I could relate to Harriet's and her friends' summertime adventures more than I could to their school days in swanky Manhattan. Being (and remaining) a child of the suburbs, the very urban setting of that book always puzzled me. What kind of kids, I wondered, lived in apartment buildings, stopped at a local drugstore after school for an "egg cream," had full-time nannies, and attended weird stand-alone schools not a part of any comfortable and generically named district? Later on when I read other juvenile fiction also set in New York, I used to wonder what "P.S.," followed by a number, meant; later still, I wondered at the insularity of New York editors who think that all American children will understand that, and no explanations necessary.

The Long Secret spins out on slightly more familiar ground. In Water Mill, New York ("slow down and enjoy it" reads the motto on the welcome sign), we are far from the perplexing and gigantic city. There are forests and farm fields here, long gravel roads with real individual houses along them, and a town with a main street, a filling station, a post office, and a little grocery store where the kids buy cookies. We read of long bike rides, of the sun on hot handlebars, and of long days at the beach with nothing to do but swim, read, eat, and get back home in time for dinner.

Harriet's and her friends' escapades are certainly a bit implausible -- the essence of fiction, no? -- yet when I read them at twelve, I found them spot on. That a set of pubescents should "spy" on the adult goings-on at a country resort, concentrating particularly on the bar staff, plus meet an extraordinary family of Bible-thumping Southern evangelicals in the patent nostrum business headed by an obese single mother, all the while one of the pubescents endures a dreadful reunion with a long-lost Eurotrash mother of her own, seems a pretty outlandish set up even for a young adult novel. (Do we assume that kids want to read crazier plotlines than adults do? Perhaps.) Yet I drank it all in. I think it seemed right because the friendships among the main characters, Harriet, Beth Ellen, Janie, and the late-come Mississippian, Jessie Mae, are so right. These four friends are everything twelve-year-olds are: viperish, rude, self-absorbed, prickly and critical with each other most of the time, and yet capable of a sort of clodhoppy affection and of rudimentary adult manners troweled like plaster over the rough bricks of childhood. This scene, for example, struck me then, and still does, as emotionally perfect:

They were having a discussion about where to go.

"Let's go back and see Mama Jenkins. She said come back one day before they work and get lemonade, remember?" said Harriet, looking at Beth Ellen.

That seems a thousand years ago, thought Beth Ellen, but all she said was, "Let's go to the hotel."

" 'Let's go to the hotel, let's go to the hotel,' -- that's all you ever say," said Harriet.

"What hotel?" asked Janie. "Anyway, I thought people went to the beach out here. Isn't that what you come out here for?"

Harriet looked at Janie. Beth Ellen knew what was going through Harriet's mind: Janie was a guest and whatever she wanted they would have to do. She watched Harriet and her inner struggle.

"Yes. Let's go to the beach," said Harriet in a limp but friendly way.

"I couldn't care less," said Janie. "The sun gives you skin cancer anyway."

"Why don't we do all three?" said Harriet as though a light bulb had gone on in her head.

"Smashing," said Janie.

Beth Ellen felt a secret smile that she wouldn't let crawl out onto her face. She would see Bunny ...

The story's "secret" concerns the question who is leaving a series of bizarre red-crayoned notes all over Water Mill. Harriet, Beth Ellen, and briefly Janie are vacationing here, and witness the resultant small scale turmoil. Random people find random notes at their workplaces, in their homes, as they sit down to restaurant meals, in Harriet's case in the basket of her bicycle. Playing detective as she is, and planning to write a story based on the mystery, she's beyond thrilled when she finally gets one. (" 'It's HAPPENED.' ") The notes are faintly Biblical, scolding, and horoscope-like, " 'like some sort of nasty fortune cookie,' " as a minor but terrifically outre character, Mrs. Plumber, puts it. Beth Ellen's breathtakingly beautiful and awful mother, Zeeney Baines, gets the worst -- because truest -- of them all: IN SORROW THOU SHALT BRING FORTH CHILDREN.

If you've never had the pleasure when you were twelve, I won't go any further, for fear of spoiling things for you; only do please read this funny, un-syrupy, and need I emphasize lavishly plotted book. Even the asides cover just about everything in a preteen's head and experience, including the first independent thoughts about religion, the crush on the older man, the first menstruation, and those late night pajama-party conversations about God. Harriet starts this topic abruptly. " 'Listen, I want to ask you something, both of you. Do you believe in God?' "

Adulthood has given me just one little soupcon of delight more in this delightful book. Of course, I can see some scenes anew, as at the very beginning when Beth Ellen's grandmother is furious that the maid MOVED her perfume bottles. No, she's mad at more than that. But more fun is that, having spent some years reading Vogue and other materials, I understand the setting of The Long Secret. These are the Hamptons, whither all the celebrities retreat in summer when swanky Manhattan grows unbearable. Montauk, where Harriet's father buys lobsters for the clambake, is a real place, as is Mecox Bay, on the shores of which Harriet's and Beth Ellen's families have their respective houses. The Montauk highway and Water Mill are also real, although I hardly think, almost fifty years on, that Louise Fitzhugh's descriptions of the town as a truly hick wide spot in the road, whose locals roll their eyes at "the summer people" and whose woods still shelter the house of an elderly black sharecropping preacher, can now be accurate.

It never occurred to me when I first read both books that Harriet and her circle were very rich. That background, which Harriet at least suspected, neither drove nor interfered with the fun of either story. But it turns out that Fitzhugh knew whereof she wrote on this score, because besides being an adoptive New Yorker she was herself a trust fund baby and an owner of grand (Connecticut) properties. Doing enough perfunctory researches into her life to learn that much gives another soupcon, not of delight but of half-appalled fascination, to the re-reading of her work. If I had wanted to find out anything about her when I was twelve, I would have had to ask a librarian at the public library for help in unearthing details, painstakingly slowly, from sources like the once absolutely necessary Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. It would have required dogged work for us simply to find her obituary there -- for by the time I read her two finest, almost her only novels, she was already dead. To learn the fact of "her death in 1974" from the back of a book jacket meant nothing to a twelve-year-old in 1977; to google her, and learn in a moment that she died of a brain aneurism at 46, is rather choke-inducing now that I am 45. "MY GOD," Harriet would shout, "YOU'RE KIDDING." And then, her eyes narrowed to slits: "What is this?"

For more information:

Purple Socks: a Louise Fitzhugh tribute site

"Regarding Harriet: Louise Comes in From the Cold" by Karen Cook (originally published in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, April 11, 1995, reprinted at Purple Socks)

Louise Fitzhugh (wikipedia article)

Harriet the Spy (movie, 1996)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Typhoon by Joseph Conrad

The sea story. The fo'c'sle and the mizzenmast, the bosun and the 'tween-decks. The storm.

I have tremendous respect for Joseph Conrad, even though I never could finish Lord Jim. I understand that Conrad muscled himself into being a gorgeous stylist of English prose, and an utterly natural recorder of English dialogue, despite not knowing the language until he was twenty (he was born a Polish aristocrat). Still, there is something about the sea story that must only appeal to a limited cadre of readers. If you have lived on a boat and loved it, perhaps you're the cadre; but in that case you would not need the careful descriptions of rigging, pistons, and booms. They are for the landlubber, and more power to Conrad and his fellow sea-writers for trying to make it all clear to us. The trouble is, after a while, all the fo'c'sle talk does become so enervating. It would be as if an ordinary writer were to tell a tale set in a house, and painstakingly depict everything about how the faucets and the doorknobs work. Perhaps, by definition, the writer of sea stories is no ordinary writer.

In Typhoon, Conrad sets himself the task of recording two things, apart from the fo'c'sle talk which sets the stage. He records the reactions of a good, competent, but by no means dazzling man, to his first life-and-death challenge from his chosen element, the sea. We know that Captain MacWhirr ran away to be a sailor when he was fifteen, and has ploddingly loved it and never looked back. Now he is well into middle age. And Conrad tells us, as well as he can, what a typhoon is.

That last is hard to do, though I doubt anyone could do it any better or try any harder. Deafening noise, blackness, the glimpse of huge walls of water approaching the crew on deck, and then the sensation of their weight hitting, which is all the passengers below can know, all give as good an idea as any of a storm that lasts hours, and that seems to take place in some other universe, where calm and sunshine are unknown.

One more obstacle to the landlubber's enjoyment of the sea story, and one that is not remotely Conrad's fault, is the tendency while reading it to remember your undergraduate training in everlastingly analyzing Litt-trah-ture. It poisons good books in any case, but the sea story in particular is so helpless to defend itself against English Lit preciousness. Of course any voyage in a boat represents life. Of course the passengers below decks, scrambling in the midst of the storm to recover their money scattered from the broken chests, represent the futility of man. Since the passengers are "Chinamen," and are brought to order and given lifelines to cling to by the actions of the English captain and crew, I suppose today that must raise shrieks of racism and the condescension of the imperialist West towards the East. Reading the story as Conrad wrote it, and not as the poison of your training has taught you to read it, will be your best corrective here.

At the end we come away, lubbers though we are, with an affection and respect for Captain MacWhirr, unimaginative, untalkative, untried man who had to consult books about typhoons when he noticed the "glass" falling, but in whom the storm finally "met its match." And there are some great lines, lessons really, which stand out partly because they are great and partly because the ex-English major has been trained to spot them. In a lesser author they would merely be precious, attention-please, drumroll prose. In Conrad they are true, and striking. At the beginning, we read,

Captain MacWhirr had sailed over the surface of the oceans as some men go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain of perfidy, of violence, and of terror. There are on sea and land such men thus fortunate -- or thus disdained by destiny or by the sea.
But midway through, already things have changed. They have encountered far more than "dirty" weather, and the worst is to come. Expecting he might die, he tells his second in command,

"Don't you be put out by anything. Keep her facing it. They may say what they like, but the heaviest seas run with the wind. Facing it -- always facing it -- that's the way to get through. You are a young sailor. Face it. That's enough for any man. Keep a cool head."

"Yes, sir," said Jukes, with a flutter of the heart.

Friday, April 30, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

I have a friend who loves Dickens, loves him with a new and mature fervor. "Some characters are horrible people, some are so wonderful ... and yet in the end, there's always hope. Goodness."

Perhaps I should try him again.

March 1999

The story might be excellent, in other hands, but Dickens is always Dickens. He is neither funny nor feeling; Sydney Carton, grown man weeping into his pillow because he can't be good, is very distasteful. Miss Pross is well drawn but little seen. Finished it quickly, as marvellous story, but again Dickens is always Dickens. Mawkish, hysterical. Had a chance for a great psychological scene at the end, when Carton convinces Darnay to leave and let him take his place on the guillotine; instead of which, Carton drugs him with some handy, unexplained vapour (on a wafted handkerchief).

Mr. Jarvis Lorry very good.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cleopatra: the Story of a Queen by Emil Ludwig

It beggars the imagination to know that four of the most epochal figures of the ancient world -- can there be a lot of epochal figures even in one part of an epoch? -- all were exact contemporaries, met each other, and that three of the four enjoyed the most intimate alliances, and had children. They were Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, and the Octavian who later became the emperor Augustus. Add a fifth to the Important mix, for there was also Cicero, and we should not forget Brutus and Cassius, assassins though they were, nor Octavian's general, Agrippa, nor the women besides Cleopatra: Fulvia and Octavia, Antony's two first wives, and then Octavian's second wife Livia, who for public television viewers in the last generation may have become the most recognizable of them all.

In 1937 -- just about the time Robert Graves was writing I, Claudius -- Emil Ludwig wrote Cleopatra: Geschichte einer Konigin, which was then translated and published in New York in 1939. His sources, as he writes in his introduction, were for the most part "my master" Plutarch, as well as the few other ancient historians whose scanty records of Cleopatra survive, men unknown now except I suppose to extreme specialists, -- men like Appian and Dio Cassius.

Emil Ludwig is anxious, in that same introduction, to explain why this novel is so unlike his others, he who has been "studying the human heart these thirty years." It contains no dialogue, for example, because none of the great Queen's talk is preserved, and he did not want to make things up entirely; from the mouths or pen of his four main characters, not an authentic word exists except a few lines from a letter of Antony's, noted by an ancient historian in an archive and paraphrased a century after the events. Ludwig happily includes this in his book. ("Are you upset that I sleep with the Queen?" Antony asked Octavian. "She is my wife ....")

This handicap of a lack of dialogue, stemming from those familiarly scanty sources which apparently gave Ludwig not much more information to work with, circa 1930, than Shakespeare had to work with circa 1630, doesn't make for an insurmountable problem if you don't mind reading a novel without the freshness and movement of dialogue -- a novel that takes place almost entirely in the characters' heads. Given his unwillingness to invent scenes around dialogue, there is not much for the author to do, and he admits this, but serve as a sort of psychological companion to the Queen, describing what she likely thought and saw, and whom she loved and hated, during her brief and spectacular career. What is noteworthy, if you compare the gist of his romance to a proper biography like that by Michael Grant (Cleopatra, 1972) is how much he gets essentially right. Perhaps this, again, reflects the uniform paucity of sources, and the fact that ancient historians operated much like modern novelists. They were more interested in their subjects' moral dilemmas, in their tragedy or bravery, than in mucking around with evidence or proving exactly how many men died in a battle. What he got right above all were two things, Cleopatra's politics -- "never against Rome," always Rome's ally, ancient Egypt having little other choice against the superpower -- and her most important ambition, which was to maintain a Greek-speaking cultural counterweight to Roman power in the eastern Mediterranean. She was three hundred years ahead of her time, Michael Grant thinks, for when Rome tottered in the fourth century, its rulers did move east, to establish a rejuvenated Empire for a thousand years in Greek-speaking Byzantium.

The focus of the psychological action, the necessary novelistic "conflict" (such as it is), seems to lie between Cleopatra and Octavian, and it's a simple, visceral conflict. These two people are actually not thrown much together in the story -- Octavian is the one supreme Roman whom Cleopatra never enchants, and in the book we understand it's because he was cold and unworthy of her -- but if it's true that Cleopatra's first child, her son Caesarion, was in fact the son of Julius Caesar, then after Caesar's murder this half-Egyptian boy instantly stood in the way of the official, Roman heir, Octavian. Octavian, after all, was only a great-nephew. And the grandson of a moneylender, as Ludwig gleefully points out more than once. The latter half of the novel is overshadowed by Cleopatra's ghastly problem, namely grooming her son for a supreme monarchy but keeping him, the prey, out of the predator Octavian's claws.

The only other possible source of dramatic conflict in the story of the Queen's life has to do with that plebeian side to Rome, with the clash of personalities or more accurately, the clash of two entirely different civilizations' approach to the world and to life. (Of course Rome is convulsed by civil war at this time, which is why so many great people are so busy with gigantic action, but this is a novel about a woman, and Ludwig is a historian of the human heart.) We see Ludwig illustrate something of this in comparing Cleopatra to her rivals for the great men's affections, Caesar's other mistresses and Antony's other wives, not least of whom was his second wife Octavia, Octavian's sister. Roman women are portrayed as certainly formidable and beautiful in their way, but distinctly un-royal, un goddess-like. They are married to the grandsons of moneylenders and know nothing of what it is to be glorious, silver-robed Isis come to life; Ludwig once compares Cleopatra to a force of nature, an "artist in love," as opposed to the "pious" Octavia who conforms her behavior to the expectations of her noble and yet proudly republican neighbors. He says, noting the fact that the two women did not meet during the time when they both were married to Antony, even as they both sent him ships and supplies and money for his wars, from their two different homes in the Mediterranean:

"But the Roman matron was too much the great lady, too much a part of her family, to desire a [face to face] contest. Such things could be risked by a queen who was also an Amazon and an artist in love, since what she did was right because she did it; but not by a patriotic citizeness whose dignity was determined by the judgment of her fellow citizens."

And Octavia covered her eyes piously when a rhinoceros spitted a criminal in the arena. Cleopatra, "cynically innocent," laughed -- and was the only force of nature capable of holding her own with Caesar. Is the theme of the novel, possibly, something to do with a man's ultimate fantasy of the perfect, lawless, overripe woman? There are tiny hints that somehow, Cleopatra knew secrets characteristic of the ancient Orient, so that in her early twenties she could fascinate and satiate an "ageing" and experienced conqueror, a force of nature himself. The laughing at spitted criminals, or the relishing having younger brothers and sisters executed, or the testing snake venom on slaves, merely added an excusable whiff of piquancy to the Queen's more important splendors ....

The historian Grant agrees with the novelist Ludwig that in her own day, only Cleopatra was simply this, "the Queen." There was no need even to specify what country she ruled. The details of her romance may be found in Grant, or in Ludwig, or in Plutarch -- she had herself unrolled from a smuggled carpet at her first meeting with the well guarded Caesar, she sailed into Tarsus as Aphrodite, in a golden ship exuding perfumes and song, at her first meeting with Antony -- but what beggars our modern imaginations is not only the fact of her permanently bewitching these great men, but the very nature of the world she lived in. Two foundations seem to have supported the whole structure of pagan antiquity: Homer and Alexander. Homer had laid down in his poetry what heroes and gods did in life; Alexander had shown in his life how a hero, and king, could translate those emulations beyond what anyone had ever known as empire. Ludwig describes Caesar assassinated on the eve of carrying out his "Alexander-dream," the conquest of Persia which would make him as great as his model. For her part Cleopatra, a Ptolemy, united Egypt and Greece and Alexander's legacy in herself. It would have been an already stupendous combination even in a personally charmless woman. The Queen was not, never that. To have united with Caesar as well, and to have founded a dynasty with him, would have meant the gathering of almost unfathomable power, and we cannot forget Egypt's wealth, too, and its status as the importer of food into Rome. If Caesar and Cleopatra had had a son, in this world where the gods were understood to walk among men and the expectation and acceptance of divine and royal births seems to have served as a kind of mortar between the foundation stones, that son might, as comically extravagant as it sounds, "have ruled the world."

But they did have a son, it seems, and after the Queen and Antony (who had his own Alexander dream, funded with the Queen's money) and Caesar were all dead, Octavian made sure to annex Egypt and, in Ludwig's telling, have the seventeen-year-old Caesarion strangled. The Queen loses this novelistic conflict, and the predator Octavian wins.

Image from the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

Sunday, December 13, 2009

This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart

How often do you get a chance to read a novel set on the island of Corfu? If only libraries and bookstores, with all their so clever Dewey decimal systems and alphabetical orders, would arrange novels like this: all those set in Corfu, for example, or all those set in T'ang China, or all those that happen to have as a main character some extremely important person (now nearly forgotten) of a bygone age: Robert Grosseteste, say.

Mary Stewart's This Rough Magic (1964) is also a nice example of a certain kind of novel that I like to look for, that I'd like to see categorized officially somehow too, but whose characteristics I can't quite put my finger on: the mid-twentieth century women's novel which, in its depictions of men's and women's relations especially, throws off the safe comforting cloak of historical fiction, ignores what seems the careful prissiness of earlier, still-corseted decades, but hasn't yet descended to the monotonous, sentimental trauma memoirs that so many (women-governed) publishing firms and book clubs love now. I'm talking about novels of the 1950s and '60s in which, for one thing, the horrors of two world wars loom only a short time in the past; even though the plot line may have nothing to do with war, the characters tend to be sadder but wiser, about something. About everything. There will be no Aunt Jane in these novels, justly worried about chaperoning a man and woman on a buggy ride to the state fair. The smell of exhaust and the roar of an engine permeates the mid-century women's novel. Our heroine drives her own car, makes her own vacation plans, and talks frankly with sisters and friends about man, and in-laws, and bed. When she's distraught she doesn't whisper a corseted "profanity of no uncertain meaning" (Gone With The Wind), but rather says "Hell. Hell. Hell." And yet our heroine is literate, too. More modern (often women) novelists tend not only to be sub-literate, but to show a horrible inclination to that worst of (female) failings, the tendency to see everything as personal. I never joined another book discussion group again after having to read, in the long forgotten Ellen Foster (by Kaye Gibbons, the dernier cri in new fiction ten years ago), that the Civil War was "a war about how we should feel about each other."

Oh, really? Was it? The characters in This Rough Magic -- I dare say, the author of This Rough Magic -- are no such fools. As a matter of fact the finest scene comes toward the end, when the heroine, alone with the villain, gives him a dressing down and really psychologically nails what both sheer evil and interior twistedness are. She is aware that large chunks of life have nothing to do with how we all feel. And the author is -- should I say, because she is? -- literate. The plot of the novel actually hinges on what we would call a close reading of The Tempest, so close that every chapter opens with a pertinent quote from the play. The Tempest is set on Corfu. We learn why Prospero may have a lot in common with Corfu's patron saint, the similarly named Spiridion, and there's a great deal about Prospero drowning his books, and giving up the practice of "this rough magic," while the characters in the middle of a romantic suspense story also hunt for important documents hidden in undersea caves.

A few plot devices are a bit cheesy, to use the modern term. Let's just say they involve a friendly dolphin, and leave it at that. The romance is not terribly convincing. Once we figure out which man is good, the cheerful, good-looking blond or the dark brooding recluse, no further sparks fly. Our author's interest lies much more with the world-famous, elderly actor holed up in the castle, who serves as the source for all our information about The Tempest and who is also the link to the heroine's professional world (she's a struggling young actress, come to Corfu on holiday to visit her pregnant, rich sister and to forget her last flop).

If you have no head for inventing fiction (as I haven't), a book like This Rough Magic is at once awe inspiring and disappointing. I am awed to see the effort, the thought that has gone into planning this: no one described it all better than Jane Austen, in her famous "defense of the novel" paragraph from Northanger Abbey:

" 'Oh! it is only a novel!' " replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. 'It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda'; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language."
Indeed, it is "only" that, and yet, I'm disappointed too in that I can see the cranking machinery behind the scenes. How do you make a novel? Remember, a novel has to be a certain size in the hand, a certain thickness in pages. Partly, you achieve that size and fill up those pages by figuring out the plot, but partly, you achieve it by describing in unneeded detail a variety of scenes chosen almost at random -- a car trip, a walk to the beach on this day but not that (so that you can witness the actions of this suspicious character but not that one), a long, long near-drowning the precise nautical details of which, after all, no first person narrator could ever plausibly have been expected to remember. In one of his many books, the centenarian colossus-scholar Jacques Barzun acknowledged that any artist eventually has to make some decisions which perhaps are random, if he wants to carry on and finish any work of art at all. And the finished work of art is of course different from what it might have been if the artist had made other decisions. Let's skip the drowning scene, she might have said to herself, and cut the car-trip scene from five pages to two. The reader doesn't need to know precisely when the villain shifted from this gear to that. And that finished, different work of art is not necessarily better. Not necessarily perfect, utterly the best it could have been.

Is it only the greatest artists who are able to tell when they have done that, when they have made all the best decisions -- and then are able to stop? Are they the ones who produce art you want to go back to? "An artist cannot do anything slovenly," Jane Austen wrote in one of her letters. Shall I go back and re read This Rough Magic, or anything more by Mary Stewart?

Possibly. Austen further wrote that all novelists' "productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world," and she was right about that. This Rough Magic is pleasurable -- how often do you read smart, mid-'60s novels set in Corfu? -- even if it does not provide the "heavy lifting" that Professor Barzun says is needed to keep the intellect fully in shape. Perhaps we had better move on to The Tempest, actually.

Image from alternativeef.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding (d---- me)

This is my second go-round with Tom Jones. Of course it's splendid; I understand it's splendid. What modern writer, for example, has the brains to accomplish this? --

Hushed be every ruder breath. May the heathen ruler of the winds confine in iron chains the boisterous limbs of noisy Boreas and the sharp-pointed nose of bitter-biting Eurus. Do thou, sweet Zephyrus, rising from thy fragrant bed, mount the western sky and lead on those delicious gales, the charms of which call forth the lovely Flora from her chamber, perfumed with pearly dews, when on the first of June, her birthday, the blooming maid in loose attire gently tips it over the verdant mead, where every flower rises to do her homage till the whole field becomes enamelled and colours contend with sweets which shall ravish her most (Book IV, chapter 2).

My trouble is that I get bogged down, in Tom Jones, in the long middle chapters concerning the inn or inns at Upton. We begin well, otherwise. I understand that Tom is a foundling, a fine, decent, red-blooded English boy. Out in the country among his gentry foster family and neighbors, there are only a handful of characters to keep track of. There's his foster father, Squire Allworthy, and Allworthy's sister, and the boozing and hunting and really rather awful Squire Western across the fields. There's Squire Western's lovely daughter Sophia, and Western has a sister, too, the d----d b---- who is the plague of his life now that his d----d wife is dead. Then Allworthy's sister marries one Blifil and has a son, young Blifil, who grows up to be all that is snivelling, mean, and wretched. There are parsons, tutors, and maids, and we can't forget that in eighteenth century English usage a maid was an "Abigail," just as a youngest son could be a "Benjamin" even though his name might be Hal, and a single woman over a certain age was credited with the honorific "Mrs."

So far so good. There is nothing quite like eighteenth-century English prose, as a matter of fact, and what I find especially awe-inspiring about Fielding's use of it is precisely that it is so often unstuffy. If anybody taught him the rule that one never ends a sentence with a preposition, he forgot it or didn't care. If anyone taught him that one never mixes up persons in one's narrator, he forgot that, too, or didn't care. He writes with blooming confidence, almost at dictation speed, and if amid that arch, slightly hectoring but good-natured tone, and all the rolling Latinate periods, a sentence runs on something like "reader, we think it best to inform thee, as I have hinted before, that Fate had placed the youth in a situation he couldn't get out from," Fielding leaves it all at that.

Another extraordinary thing about Fielding's work -- watch me try to imitate his confidence, and fail -- is the conversations he records among his characters, including the lower orders whom the reader might assume in real life would not speak well. Possibly our own age has gotten so lazy with language, spoken and written, that we simply can't believe anyone ever kept his mind so engaged in his own discourse, and his neighbors', that he could reel off full thoughts in good grammatical structure as a daily, an hourly, habit. The maidservant, Mrs. Honour, is my favorite, especially when she is in a self-justifying passion: " 'I don't care a farthing! I speaks no scandal of any one; but to be sure, the servants make no scruple of saying as how her ladyship meets men at another place -- where the house goes under the name of a poor gentlewoman but her ladyship pays the rent; and many's the good thing besides, they say, she hath of her.' " These conversations are extraordinary also in the way they appear on the page: not for Fielding the obvious separation of lines of dialogue, speech by speech, a dozen new little paragraphs all down the paper. Instead, the characters' confrontations are treated as whole scenes, so the reader faces huge blocks of thickly printed text which can't be skimmed over. If you want to really know who is saying what to whom, you must read, and watch out for the quotation marks or you'll get confused.

So far, so good. Tom Jones, virtuous foundling, loves Sophia, and Sophia loves him. Her father finds out and locks her up, insisting she won't get out until she marries the wretch, young Blifil, who in turn has poisoned his uncle's, Squire Allworthy's, mind against Jones and so now stands to inherit all Allworthy's fortune. Jones is kicked out of Allworthy's house. Sophia escapes to the open road with her maid, intending to throw herself upon the mercy and protection of an aunt in London. We attend our characters to the midpoint of their journey, the inn, or inns, at Upton.

Of course Fielding has to separate his lovers in some way, but here at Upton I get bogged down. The middle fourth, or perhaps third, of the book is spent here, in what seems an endless series of marches and counter-marches, most of them at night, by which Jones and Sophia stumble from one inn to another, are kept carefully apart, and yet thrown in with more characters who will play big roles in their fate in the final part of the novel. The army is here, too, for it's 1745 and the last Stuart pretender to the English monarchy, Bonnie Prince Charlie, is lurking about or his "rebels" are. There are plenty of soldiers for the hot-blooded Jones to get in fights with, and Sophia is briefly mistaken for Jenny Cameron, famous mistress of the prince. In the middle of all this Jones meets the mysterious Man of the Hill, a recluse who tells a long story about his past misfortunes and then disappears.

Eventually we leave Upton and attend our hero and heroine to London. The hailstorm of new characters whom we had met -- landladies, ensigns, post boys, parlor maids -- now becomes a tornadic blizzard of even newer characters in "town." Lords, ladies, lawyers, husbands, wives (or not), Mrs. Miller and her daughters, Mrs. Miller's daughter's beau, Mrs. Miller's cousin who turns out to be the highwayman who had accosted Jones outside Upton, and all along Mrs. Miller has been well acquainted with Squire Allworthy plus I had forgotten to mention that all along Jones has been jogging along in the company of the delightful idiot Partridge, who had been expelled from Allworthy's employ twenty years earlier because he was reputed to be Jones' natural father.

When Fielding opens up a fresh plot twist by saying, "the reader will remember that this was the lady who had departed the inn just a few minutes before Sophia in the ninth book of this history," or something similar, well -- you know you have taken too long to read the tale. You have forgotten too much. You want to have done well enough by the master to be able to chime right in with the character who, almost at the end, sees the villainy that has dogged Jones' and his lady's footsteps, exclaiming with her " 'I see all! I see all!' "

And what do we see? Even before getting bogged down in Upton, it should occur to us that one of the themes of the story is deception. Over and over again, Jones especially is the unwitting victim of someone else's simple lie, someone's theft, someone's silent complicity in an injustice, someone's unwitting obedience to a nefarious plot. And yet Fielding himself thinks the theme is something different (although he does allow that "any human mind may be imposed upon," and there is nothing to be done about it). Way down at the bottom of the deep well that is Tom Jones, at chapter 10 of Book XVIII, the theme screams out at even the most forgetful and sleepy-eyed reader. Squire Allworthy says, " 'Prudence is indeed the duty which we owe to ourselves, and if we will be so much our own enemies as to neglect it, we are not to wonder if the world is deficient in discharging their duty to us, for when a man lays the foundation of his own ruin, others will, I am afraid, be too apt to build upon it.' "

True, but it's hard to know in what sense Jones has been imprudent throughout the story. His worst deeds seem to be that he sleeps with a lot of women while in love with the pure Sophia, but Fielding is no prude to be horrified at that. Sophia, naturally, is horrified by it, but then she is the picture of eighteenth-century female imprudence herself. How many well-brought up gentry girls simply left their homes and cast themselves upon the world to avoid an odious marriage, in an era when there was nothing for a woman of a certain class to do to survive except marry? Although Tom Jones is a light-hearted book, Fielding does hint at the brutality of the world he chronicled, the world that Sophia and Tom suffer (briefly) in. There is the long, strange story of the Man of the Hill, for one thing, which seems to be Dickensian in its moral purpose. And later Sophia's own protectress in London tries to arrange for her to be raped by a lord who wants her, so that she'll be too soiled to marry anything but that.

On the back of my paperback edition of this book, Coleridge is quoted as saying that "upon his word, he thinks Tom Jones, the Alchemist, and Oedipus Tyrannus the three most perfect plots ever planned." (The Alchemist was a play by Ben Jonson, written in 1610.) He's probably right, but following the master, Fielding, through the convolutions of Tom Jones will require, for me, more than two readings. Perhaps it requires an eighteenth-century mind -- a mind able also to make conversation in full sentences, nay paragraphs, with other people. I know that he has made no mistakes. I know that he has thought everything out, and quite a time it must have taken. I'm just d----d if I can see it all yet. And oh by the way, we've forgotten to acknowledge the work and wit that went into the introductory chapters of every single "book" in the book, in which Fielding unburdened himself of various ideas, on love, on critics, "On the serious in writing, and for what purpose it is introduced." He says that if these introductory chapters are too dull, we may skip them.

And oh by the way -- Henry Fielding was a professional playwright, then "went back to school" as we would phrase it, studying law and serving as a justice of the peace in order to earn a living after the Licensing Act of 1737 closed down a good many theaters. While pursuing this second career, he opened his third, novel writing. Joseph Andrews and Amelia are also his. All that, before the eighteenth century's health hazards caught up with him, killing him at the age of 47.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Digging into my old Book Lover's Journal

I think pre-formatted, blank page book review journals may have been more in vogue ten or twelve years ago than they are now. Is it the kind of thing worth dipping into, or will what you see just make you cringe?

July 1997 (I distinctly remember I wrote this while sitting in the backyard on a hot day. Four toddlers played in a wading pool while the baby slept nearby.)

Desiree by Annemarie Selinko (pub. 1953)

Novel of Desiree Clary, affianced to Napoleon before he became famous and found Josephine. Desiree marries Bernadotte (relation to Count assassinated in Cairo, '47 -- Israeli independence?) -- and becomes Queen of Sweden.

Surprisingly good, considering length and laborious detail. Well-arranged, astonishing research; first intro to the Vasas of Sweden. Learned more about Napoleon here than in any book yet. (Prob. not saying much.)

My understanding of the assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte was hazy.

November 1997

Louis XIV: A Royal Life by Olivier Bernier (pub. 1987)

Good. Interesting analysis of 17th vs. 20th century politics and war, and expectations of both. "Freedom" in the 17th century meant the right to state protection of the weak and the poor.

Well now. That's pertinent.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. by Brian O'Doherty

Wildly dull. So much so that I wonder at the awareness of the author. At some point, doesn't a writer step back from his work and think, "my God, this is going to bore people to death"? We all write dull things occasionally; editors help correct that propensity, usually. The wonder is that this got published even with an editor's help.

Not that the book isn't competently assembled, and the sentences grammatical and sometimes artful. The trouble is that the author is trying to tell a story without telling a story. He wants to recreate a real historical incident, about the well-meaning quack doctor Mesmer in 18th century Vienna whose name has entered our language in the term "mesmerize," without actually stooping to any kind of clarity about people, places, or events. The brief tale is told in chapters narrated as memoirs by the handful of main characters -- doctor, patient, patient's father. It seems that one of Mesmer's patients or subjects was a young woman surnamed Paradies, whose father was an official at the court of the Empress Maria Theresa and who was herself an accomplished pianist. She was blind, and at 18 her parents submitted her to Mesmer's care for a cure for this. Mesmer had strange ideas about fluids and "animal magnetism." ("I see it as a luminous sheath of weightless extension which binds the stars and our souls in one glowing substance ....") He believed he could help people suffering any variety of ills by massaging this fluid through their bodies, until they achieved some sort of "crisis," at which point his assistants, hale young men, would bear off the spasming patient to a padded room and close the door on the screams.

This would be terrific stuff in the hands of a good professional women's romance novelist, but O'Doherty, I fear, prefers to be an artiste. Instead of anything that might keep our attention, we get long pages on father Paradies, disappointed in his daughter's cure, wondering how he can pull strings at court to get Mesmer disgraced without seeming petty or scheming himself. Mozart wanders in, because the time frame is right -- although the brief note at the end of the book tells us that in fact Mozart and Mlle. P. actually met, and he wrote a concerto for her (B flat, K. 456). Marie Antoinette lurks on the sidelines, as do the scientists who went to the guillotine during the French Revolution, also because the time is right.

The best chapter is the one told from the point of view of Mlle. P. herself. The problem with Mesmer's cure of her is that it worked. She began to regain her sight, but the overload of new information that this brought her became a worse handicap than the blindness she had learned to cope with. There are very interesting pages here on what it must be like for a person to suddenly face a world in which he is expected to take in knowledge through his eyes. Mlle has no understanding of perspective; objects appear to her as in a Cubist painting, their angles and shadows ever-changing and meaningless. She has no experience associating words with the physical look of objects. To her, a "table" may as well be a "cat" -- she is in the midst of learning a foreign language on several levels, and so her mistakes under quizzing make her look like an imbecile. "To me the Danube looked like a white ribbon that I could reach out and pick up. It had no character of water that I could see."

Her own crisis comes when her new sight ruins her ability to play the piano, which is her meal ticket at the Empress' court and in life. Distracted by the visual chaos of sheet music and by the spectacle of her hands' gyrations, she regresses to such a point that her father removes her from Mesmer's house. Then the story winds down, but ever so slowly. Mesmer leaves Vienna for Paris, and Mlle P. carries on, offstage, playing and earning a living as a teacher. The well meaning quack, at eighty, suffers agonies of guilt for having erotic dreams about her. He massages his fluids.

So there is interesting matter here, but O'Doherty has chosen to spin it out as half a dozen very long winded and overthought diary entries graced by absolutely no conversation nor any other devices to move the reader forward through a story. You'll learn more, more enjoyably, from the jacket flap summary, which has to be about the last thing an author would want to hear about his novel.

Except the jacket flap also says the book is "thriller-like." As the modern vernacular puts it: um, no.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte; tr. by Jean Francois Alden by Mark Twain

Once, in a bookstore, I found a copy of the Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, and read on the back jacket flap the statement that Mark Twain considered this his best book. That's a surprise, and in the reading lists they assign and laud, it's clear college professors and other authorities don't agree with Twain's self-analysis. But I do believe I enjoyed this more than I ever enjoyed Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. Reading a master's work at one's own pace, untroubled by thesis deadlines, may help. Also, I like the middle ages.

It's a strange book, as well is should be since it's about a strange person. It may be the most serious and the most transparent in tone of any novel of Twain's I remember. You really do feel that a mournful fifteenth-century relic is speaking out of heartbreak, and only occasionally does the normally ebullient and joshing Mark Twain get a word in ("I still opened up with a small lie, of course, for habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time"). The language is very simple, simpler also than what I remember in Twain's other novels. It's as if the language must serve appropriately as a frame for Joan's own simple background, speech, and goodness. The book is a bit like another gospel, in which Joan's words, like Christ's, really ought to be set off in red type.

What the author wants to understand in these Personal Recollections, written from the point of view of Joan of Arc's page and secretary, Sieur Louis de Conte (whose initials match Samuel Langhorne Clemens') is what every historian and biographer has wanted to understand about her. We know who she was and what she did, and what was done to her. But why was she believed and obeyed, and then why was she destroyed?

It seems that, when this illiterate peasant girl came out of Domremy in the winter of 1429 to demand that she be allowed men-at-arms to go and fight the English occupying France -- she spoke of going "into" France, as if her birthplace had been outside it -- what stunned people was her ability to speak to her betters without fear. I can only assume that class differences were so enormous in those days that even the term is weakly inappropriate. When she faced lords and generals calmly, it was not just that a peasant was talking uppity. It was as if an animal was speaking. It was a miracle. In Twain's telling, she quickly became famous for being famous, like a speaking deer or calf from the pasture, and her career was underway.

For background, in 1429 France north of the Loire had endured English assault and occupation for ninety years, and France south of the Loire was a kind of medieval Vichy, a France in quotation marks. England's three great victories against French chivalry on French soil, Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, had each served as near death blows to the country. Before his death the French King Charles VI, who was insane, had actually signed over his throne by treaty to the English monarchy as a result of the defeat at Agincourt. His son the Dauphin, eventually to be Charles VII, not only thus had no throne to assume but worried about his legitimacy anyway. Justly so. Twain does not say, but Wikipedia does, that in fact Charles' own royal parents told him he was his mother's bastard by another father. He was on the point of fleeing the country.

Into this mess from out of nowhere stepped the beautiful young Maid, the speaking deer, claiming her divine Voices commanded her to do two things: to raise the siege of Orleans and so defeat the English in their current predatory project, and to escort the Dauphin to Rheims to be crowned and anointed by God King of France, and insane men's treaties be damned.

She did both things. Twain notices what must have been her fundamental role in all this, assuming that France and all its generals were not simply suddenly awash in a white light of revelation for upwards of two years because of her. She was a talisman. Famous for being famous, examined and vetted by the Church in an era when the supernatural and organized religion both bestrided Western national life, her presence at the head of the armies intoxicated men and really drove them to victories as nothing else had done, for ninety years. To serve in this way she did not need to be a natural military genius, freakishly come to earth in the body of a peasant girl, although these Recollections describe her as that, too. She had only to inspire, to command by divine instruction a simple and temporary change in French tactics: assault against occupied cities and forts, rather than the perpetual enduring of siege or, at most, wearily besieging the besiegers. Somehow she seems to have known at least this, what other generals -- MacArthur, for one -- have known. Defensive warfare is defeat.

But at some point during her brief career, maybe at the height of her triumphs -- standing in full armor at the altar of Rheims cathedral, watching her king being crowned -- it must have dawned on powerful men around her that after her work was done, this weird force of nature could never be released and left to her own devices again. Imagine the miracle of the speaking animal in some other lord's camp, on future battlefields, or dazzling other peasants, or serving as some duke's marriage prize. She had to be kept close, even while the French court undermined her victories by timidly backing away from attempting the great prize, the capture of English-occupied Paris, in favor of more treaties with enemies whom Joan had proven she could destroy. While the king dithered past the glory days of summer 1429, she stayed on, skirmishing here and there in the environs northwest of the capital. And who knows, for all her protestations that after Rheims her mission was done and she wanted to go home and tend her sheep, La Pucelle may have long since learned to thoroughly enjoy her extraordinary new life and been very loath to give it up. She must have had other aspects to her personality besides her "Voices."

In May of 1430 she was captured by the forces of the English-allied Duke of Burgundy, who kept her for the ransom he expected to be paid by a mortified and grateful Charles VII. It didn't come; the French were probably glad to be rid of her. Her English enemies offered the ransom instead, and legally the Duke was obliged to accept it. She was now a year from her death.

Her destruction was as strange, to modern eyes, as was her rise to power. For a year, French churchmen and lawyers in England's pay pursued the same two rough courses with her that, it so happens, a later generation of powerful men would pursue in the legal and physical destruction of another woman and another force of nature, Anne Boleyn. The cases are unrelated except that both times, authority wanted two things, an admission of guilt from the accused, which should have led to rehabilitation and mercy, -- and it wanted the death penalty. (The Tudor system was at least mercifully quick. Anne Boleyn was dead two and a half weeks after her arrest.)

What the French authorities harped on, sixty men looming over her in six consecutive trials during which Joan sat publicly in chains with no legal counsel, was her refusal to swear an oath to reveal everything about her career to the Church. In other words, the church wanted to officially pass judgment on her Voices, and to know exactly all they said to her. She insisted that these Voices, whom she identified as St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret, had specifically commanded her to keep a few things secret. She answered her accusers as well as possible but would not promise to disobey these divine orders.

Her consulting with her own private experience of God over the Church's understanding of it therefore made her, essentially, a Protestant. She was not tried as such and would not have understood herself as such, but it was her obedience to her private religious conscience that brought her to the stake. That, and of course the English monarchy's determination that she should die. In the last days of her life, she actually did submit to the churchmen's demands, having been brought out of her dungeon to see the stake and the pile of smoldering wood waiting for her amid excited crowds in the middle of Rouen's town square. She believed that upon signing a paper then (remember she was illiterate) and returning to women's dress, another thing authority harped on, she would be allowed to attend mass again and at least have women jailers. If Twain's Sieur de Conte is correct, back at the prison her English guards simply instantly stole her new women's clothing while she slept, and left a nineteen-year-old girl nothing to wear but her former, useful men's things. When she put them back on, she was considered to have relapsed into heresy. The punishment was death by burning, in Rouen on May 30, 1431.

A quarter of a century later, she was officially rehabilitated and declared a martyr by the French church. Twain's loyal Sieur shrewdly notices that this was after the English had been almost entirely driven out of France, and could only look back and spit that the pusillanimous king, Charles VII (called "the well-served"), had no better rights to his throne than those given him by a condemned witch and Satan worshipper long since properly burned as heretic. One way to wipe away that smear was to declare his benefactress Joan of Arc good again. Her aged mother had survived, to attend the opening of the rehabilitation trial at Notre Dame in Paris. Beatification followed many centuries later, in 1911, and then sainthood in 1920, although of course Mark Twain could not know that; I remember a college professor of mine saying that this last had everything to do with buttressing French morale after World War I.

She is such a strange figure that it's hard to know, to put it bluntly, what is the weirdest thing about Joan of Arc. Her youth? Her sex? Her humble origins? Her acceptance by men as a military commander, even if only a talisman show of one? (And she may have been a good one anyway.) What of the Voices? -- rye fungus poisoning, common in the European diet perhaps as far back as ancient Greece, and a possible source of hallucinations? God, truly? Why did the voices happen to speak French, the English wanted to know, and why were they mute when it came to warnings of what her persecutors in Rouen were up to, her Sieur wanted to know? And how can she have been a patriot before what textbooks call "the rise of the nation state"? And a French patriot to boot, who yet spoke of leaving Domremy to "come into" France? If so, then where was Domremy?

In the end, there is no doubt that a large part of her fascination for Twain and perhaps for many readers is that she is also a very Christlike figure. (She was "the most noble life that was ever born into this world save only One.") She seems to have been personally flawless and totally innocent, that is, for someone whose destiny was bizarrely military. She transfixed crowds, loved righteous battle, but after victories cradled dying Englishmen in her arms. That all her life is known from sworn testimony at a trial ("the only story of a human life which comes to us under oath," italics original) also conjures up images of patient silence before Pontius Pilate and a recording humanity too, albeit when her time came Joan was not silent. Her very character seems to have been miraculous. Even at the stake, while burning, she warned a man nearby who was holding a cross aloft for her to gaze at that he must move away, or he would be hurt. One wonders if, in another era, she could have easily served as the unwitting foundress of another church herself.

The Recollections are a very different piece of work from what we think of as the oeuvre of Mark Twain. His best book? Perhaps not, but perhaps he meant it was the one he most loved writing. To at least honor his taste in reading it, even for curiosity's sake, seems the right and really very pleasureable thing to do.

Birthplace of Joan of Arc, Domremy, France