Friday, May 22, 2015

cartwheeling and bouncing

I continue to read Chaucer. Yes, Geoffrey, I get it: men are violently jealous and women are unfaithful. Find another tune to sing, please. I have read four hundred pages of this, with almost another hundred remaining. I have Chaucer fatigue, possibly.

I'm also reading a partially dramatized account of Whymper's first ascent of the Matterhorn, of which 2015 is the 150th anniversary. 3,000 people climb the Matterhorn annually these days. There are apparently fixed ropes all the way to the summit. Four of the seven members of Whymper's team died on the descent, their roped-together bodies tumbling down the mountain, cartwheeling and bouncing off the immense flat rock faces. Horrible. The expedition created a mountaineering craze that endures to this day.

Other reading includes some German language short stories by Berthold Brecht and Stefan Zweig, good stuff. I surprise myself that I'm not reading anything Chekhov related right now. I am less surprised to discover that I'm not working on anything in the way of writing. I have a big revision waiting in the wings, but I want to finish reading a number of things before I start on that project.

Not related to reading or writing, I guess, is the discovery of the so-called "fear of missing out" phenomenon, FOMO as the kids call it. I do not suffer from this. I didn't watch any of the important television shows over the last decade, I haven't read any of the latest important novels or nonfiction books of the moment, and I don't know who any of the pop stars are right now. I am pretty sure that whatever I'm missing out on is not worth a pin, or a thimble's full of anxiety.

Monday, May 18, 2015

"It might be well to emphasize the difference between an expert and inexpert metaphysician" Reading Ezra Pound on reading

I stumbled across a copy of The ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound's 1934 literature "textbook," while I was looking for something else at a local used book shop. I bought the book because when I opened it at random, I found this passage, which I will quote at length:
When you start searching for 'pure elements' in literature you will find that literature has been created by the following classes of persons:

1. Inventors. Men who found a new process, or whose extant work gives us the first known example of a process.

2. The masters. Men who combined a number of such processes, and who used them as well as or better than the inventors.

3. The diluters. Men who came after the first two kinds of writer, and couldn't do the job quite as well.

4. Good writers without salient qualities. Men who are fortunate enough to be born when the literature of a given country is in good working order, or when some particular branch of writing is 'healthy.' For example, men who wrote sonnets in Dante's time, men who wrote short lyrics in Shakespeare's time or for several decades thereafter, or who wrote French novels and stories after Flaubert had shown them how.

5. Writers of belles-lettres. That is, men who didn't really invent anything, but who specialized in some particular part of writing, who couldn't be considered as 'great men' or as authors who were trying to give a complete presentation of life, or of their epoch.

6. The starters of crazes.

Until the reader knows the first two categories he will never be able 'to see the wood for the trees.' He may know what he 'likes.' He may be a 'compleat book-lover,' with a large library of beautifully printed books, bound in the most luxurious bindings, but he will never be able to sort out what he knows or to estimate the value of one book in relation to others, and he will be more confused and even less able to make up his mind about a book where a new author is 'breaking with convention' than to form an opinion about a book eighty or a hundred years old.

He will never understand why a specialist is annoyed with him for trotting out a second- or third-hand opinion about the merits of his favorite bad writer.
It's that last sentence that sold the book, of course. I'd like to think that I'm a Number 3 writer, but I'm certain I'm a Number 4. No matter.

So The ABC of Reading is a primer about reading, mostly reading poetry, and Pound's primary objective is to get the reader to read a lot of poetry from many sources, and learn to compare the poems against one another, and to see how (European) poetry developed along several main branches. The first half of the book is made up of aphorisms and highly-personal opinion ("In Donne's best work we find again a real author saying something he means and not simply hunting for sentiments that will fit his vocabulary."); the second half of the book is a chronological exhibition of poetry excerpts, starting with Chaucer's translation of Virgil (in Middle English) and moving slowly through time to Robert Browning. Shakespeare and the big hitters are mostly ignored because Pound assumes you can find them easily anywhere you look.

After a brief discussion of Browning, Pound talks about more contemporary writers:
From an examination of Walt [Whitman] made twelve years ago the present writer carried away the impression that there are thirty well-written pages of Whitman; he is now unable to find them.
That's funny; I laughed out loud when I read that. It goes on in a kinder vein.

There is some good stuff, some practical and insightful advice to the reader of poetry, in Pound's book. He talks about poetry from the point of view of a man who knows how to write it as well as how to read it, and Pound's theories of historical development are not full of a lot of moonshine. He takes into account that poets are real people, not "poets," neither shining mythological figures nor subhuman spirits working in service of Poetry.
More writers fail from lack of character than from lack of intelligence.

Technical solidity is not attained without at least some persistence.

The chief cause of false writing is economic. Many writers need or want money. These writers could be cured by an application of banknotes.

The next cause is the desire men have to tell what they don't know, or to pass off an emptiness for a fullness. They are discontented with what they have to say and want to make a pint of compassion fill up a gallon of verbiage.
Anyway, highly recommended, even if at times clearly wrongheaded and crackpotted. Amusing and edifying; the best book about literature I've read in years.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

That is not what I meant, at all

On Friday and Saturday I read (and am now rereading) a short book of poetry, The Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot. Everyone already knows who Eliot is, and knows all about him, I suppose. I have only known his work through mention of it in essays and articles, and I've read the stray line here and there, but I don't believe I've ever read one of his poems before now (I've been slowly making my way through an old Norton anthology of poetry but have got no farther than Wordsworth). I picked up this book on Friday because I had a couple of hours to kill downtown before meeting Mighty Reader for a(n excellent) performance of "Othello." There's a used book store not far from the theater so I sought out something interesting in a small pocket-sized edition. Yes, those were my criteria: interesting and pocket-sized. I knew I'd buy a book of poetry, but my intended target was EBB's Sonnets from the Portuguese, of which I've been for some time looking for a decent pocket edition. No such book was on the shelf on Friday afternoon, so I considered some Ezra Pound (I'm reading his 1934 "textbook" The ABCs of Reading) but didn't like the selection, and then my eye was caught by the Eliot, and I bought it. Have I wasted enough time introducing this little post? I think I have.

So everyone is likely already familiar with Mr Eliot, and I'm late for this train as usual. I had no real idea what I'd find in his poetry, and was pleasantly surprised to discover the marks of Shakespeare, Yeats, scripture, and maybe even Modernist novelists like Woolf. The poetry, the prosody, maybe I mean, is just wonderful as you all know. Eliot wrote very smooth poems, at least those in this collection are quite smooth, rolling along with one luxurious surprise after another. In general, that is, this smooth rolling along (maybe in the vein of Robert Browning's Italian-influenced verse? though I don't know of course, not really knowing poetry so much as only knowing those few poets I've read) is the shape of Eliot's poems but there are strange interruptions, shifts I don't understand into a different mode, a new tone toward the end. An example, maybe, from three-quarters of the way through "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
    “That is not it at all,
    That is not what I meant, at all.”

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
Why this sudden shift to "Hamlet?" Why is the narrator--who is clearly an older man passing through or thinking back upon a neighborhood he used to frequent to visit prostitutes--suddenly declaring himself to be an Osric (no: I see now it's Polonius) character? I don't know. The poem goes on to shift to sea images, to mermaids and crabs, and I don't for the life of me understand that shift either. I have read poems which function more or less the way many personal essays function, beginning in one vein with a particular image, and then moving in a surprising turn to a new vein, giving new meaning to the original image. See many of Johnson's essays, for example. See also the Elizabethan sonnet, by gosh. But I don't get what Eliot is doing here. It's a beautiful poem, but I don't understand the formal strategy, nor the ideas emphasized at the end. And a lot of the poems in this collection baffle me in the same way. But I'm reading them over again, because I quite like the writing and the bafflement is a pleasing sort of confusion.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Now wherewith should he ever make payment, except he used his blessed instrument?



I've been reading Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Some of the tales are familiar to me from the bits and bobs I read in school lo those many years ago, but I've never read the complete tales so there are some surprising aspects to Mr Chaucer's work. For example, I had read The Wife of Bath's Tale but not The Wife of Bath's Prologue. The tale is a short moral fable about a knight who learns--more or less--that the quality of a person is based on the life they live and not on their ancestry and inherited property. The prologue, on the other hand, is a long declaration by the Wife in which she defends her many marriages (five at this point) and her philosophy that a woman must rule her husband by whatever means necessary, including dishonesty.
Now hearken how I bore me properly,
All you wise wives that well can understand.
Thus shall you speak and wrongfully demand;
For half so brazenfacedly can no man
Swear to his lying as a woman can.
I say not this to wives who may be wise,
Except when they themselves do misadvise.
A wise wife, if she knows what's for her good,
Will swear the crow is mad, and in this mood
Call up for witness to it her own maid;
Because I was only given selected excerpts from the Tales to read as a wee sprat, I've been carrying around in my head the idea that Chaucer had left us a collection of 14th-century character sketches rooted in a strict medieval Christian morality. I was not, that is to say, prepared for the outright bawdiness of many of the tales. Chaucer's stories have more in common with Gargantua and Pantagruel than they have with Pilgrim's Progress. There are jokes about drinking, about sex, about adultery, about flatulence, about the corruption of the clergy, about the corruption of secular government, about sex, about sex, about drinking, and about flatulence. Toward the end of his life, Chaucer wrote an apology for having penned the Tales. "God forgive me, but at the time I thought they were funny." Words to that effect. Good stuff, well worth reading.

Monday, May 4, 2015

supporting our locals

Saturday was Independent Bookstore Day, in case you didn't know. Mighty Reader and I spent the afternoon cycling around Seattle, buying books. I confess that I'm not sure if the remaining chain bookstores in our fair city even sell books these days; whenever I glance in the window of the downtown Barnes & Noble, all I see are cards and CDs and other non-book items. I digress. It was a lovely spring day, we rode our bicycles up and down many hills, and purchased these fine items:


photo credit: Mighty Reader

Chamber of Chills is a present for someone else, I swear.

In other news, I am still not reading a novel. I continue along with various non-fiction, with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, with short stories in German. We continue to put off beginning our dual reading of The Count of Monte Cristo until our between-books moments sync up. I am also not working on any writing project of my own. Soon, though. Quite soon.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Merit consists in the virtue of love alone"

Today is the feast day of St Catherine of Siena, who is more-or-less the patron saint of the novel I just finished revising, Go Home, Miss America. The ghost of St Catherine has a few cameo appearances in the novel, and the protagonist is named for her. That saint was a real kook; nowadays she'd be given a fistful of prescriptions and told to relax, maybe take some art classes, that sort of thing. One does not hear these days that it's perfectly reasonable to attempt to lift yourself up to the level of the divine rather than attempting to drag the divine down to the level of humanity.

That divide, of patterning yourself after Christ (no matter the sacrifice) rather than assuming God is made in your image (and so every act of yours has the heavenly stamp of approval), is the central issue of Go Home, Miss America, even if the book is in the form of a transformative journey intertwined with a sexual comedy. Blah blah blah. You don't care about this. It's a hard sell, is this book, because the message is that people should be better than they are, that goodness is more important than happiness, that selfishness is not an okay way to engage with the world. It might be, for me anyway, a moralistic book and people only find a moralistic book attractive when the moral is "you are special and can do whatever you want and all you need is to discover your unique gift." That moral is a lie, but it sells.

Anyway, I only write this post because today is the feast day of St Catherine of Siena, and yesterday I finished a long and intense sort of revision to the manuscript of Go Home, Miss America preparatory to sending the book off to a plucky little publisher to see if they want my 85,000-word rebuke of contemporary American pridefulness.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

the oppression of "reality"

What is it with all of this discussion about representations of "reality" in fiction these days, as if fiction were some sort of universal reflection of modern society's conception of truth? Novelists do not (good novelists, that is) write novels as challenges/corrections to received ideas about representation of the nature of the world. I am tired of and oppressed by critics and commentators who attempt to hijack the formal conceits of novelists in order to present the in-no-way-original observation that we live in Plato's cave. Plato, boys and girls, has already shown us that. I doubt he even got there first; we only have his word for that and every narrator, as we all know by now, is unreliable. So can we please stop talking about mimesis and the falseness inherent therein, please? What do we talk about when we talk about "real?" Who cares? Who is talking about "real?" Novelists (good novelists, that is) are not, not talking about the nature of reality except as metaphor for the human heart's unknowableness, because the human heart, ladies and gentlemen in the shadows, is far more important to the novelist than anything else back there in the shadows or even beyond the shadows. Nabokov wrote about the uncertainty of knowledge because he was getting at the uncertainty of knowing we are loved. Critics obsessed with ideas of the "real" get that backward. It's easy to churn out 5,000 words about the antinomies of realism; it's much much easier to do that than it is to churn out 500 words about the human heart (because for even those people who cling to easy sentimentality, it is easier to spot untruths regarding the human heart than it is to tease apart poorly-argued mush about representational art). This must be why literary criticism is such a popular sport. Every sport is pointless unless you're a fan, I guess.

I did not mean to say anything about criticism in general, useless as criticism is (in general), parasitical beast on the back of an activity critics can only dream of engaging in when they aren't dreaming of revenging themselves upon it. No, I didn't mean to say anything about that. I feel that all of this discussion about "reality" is not only little more than a small-scale academic fad that expands (seemingly without limit) around the simple and obvious idea that nobody really sees the causal links between everyfuckingthing and that all representations of reality are abstractions because the only accurate map of the universe is the universe itself and that a stop sign (which represents the abstract idea of demanding temporary cessation of forward motion) is just as formally experimental and unreal as any novel (be it one from Flaubert or one from Gide), and everyone already knows this. The stop sign (and the novel--take your pick from what year or artistic movement) are abstractions, as is everything expressible since any human expression is at best an abstraction. This is old news. To pile all of this weight, all the responsibility for the limitlessness of the universe and the human mind's inability to encompass that limitlessness, upon the back of the poor novelist, is just wrongheaded and, you know, apparently also a good career move in certain industries.

This little rant lacks sharp focus. How on earth can that possibly matter? My internal pendulum is clearly swinging from "thoughtful reader" mode back to "active writer" mode.