Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"an artist, are you not?"

Marly Youmans' 2014 novel Glimmerglass is--aside from being a love story, a mystery and a tale of renewal--a book about art. I might argue that "a book about art" should, properly, be a love story, a mystery, and a tale of renewal. Maybe that's the very argument I'm about to make. We won't know until we get there, will we?

Cynthia Sorrel, the protagonist of Glimmerglass, is a woman who believes that her best years are in the past, and that her years of highest potential were wasted--or sucked dry, maybe--by the hysterical and selfish man to whom she was married at the time. Cynthia is middle-aged, or past that, and she is tired. She finds herself renting a house in upstate New York (in the city of Cooper Patent, a fictionalized Cooperstown) because she is beguiled by the house's strangeness and beauty. Beauty, catching Cynthia's artist's eye, draws her into the tale of Glimmerglass.

During the first half of the novel, Cynthia remembers (or is shoved pretty hard into remembering) that she is an artist, a creator of things, a weigher and molder of beauty. She paints, she falls into a romance, she stumbles into a pretty good life in Cooper Patent and she finds a refuge from the world, a refuge in art:
...Cynthia felt [...] as if some creeping shadow of a horror were coming toward them as the sun set. Scandals in the capitals, disease leaping and spreading like a fire arrow that had sailed into dry thatch, a bird's heart bursting in mid-flight: what could she do? She bent over her paper, sketching a child.
But is art really a refuge? That, I think, is the big question at the heart of Glimmerglass. Do we hide within our art from the world, or do we confront the world with our art? Is art a barrier or is it a window, or is it maybe something more profound? There are a lot of windows and transparent objects in Glimmerglass, and there is a great deal of imagery about sight, eyes, faces and expressions. There's a constant subtext about the variety and uses of art, low and high.

As I said in my first post about the novel, way back when, Glimmerglass is thick with allusions to fairy tales and myths. There are imps, and angels, and demons, and a labyrinth; it is within this labyrinth that Cynthia Sorrel confronts (among other apparitions) what might be the spirit of art, or of creation: an angel-like figure named the Opal Bone. Bone is a mixed bag of an angel, an indeterminate spirit if you will. He has his own concerns.
"Angels are at war. We've been so for thousands of years. [...] Far off, demons seethe in the air. Like the shuddering of leaves before they fly from the trees in fall. [...] Even men can feel something evil pass by."

[...]

"I don't even know how I got here," she cried.

"This spot in particular? [...] A fortunate fall, don't you think?--or not--someone pushed you, I should imagine, over a parapet. That's the way it usually happens with my kind. One minute, paradise--the next, you're a dropping star, pointed to by small human children." [emphasis mine, and note the word fall]
In the end, I think, art is shown to be a way of seeing, a way of being in the world, not an escape from it. A way of being, of seeing, that involves labor. Dreaming in Glimmerglass is after all an active process, the dreamer responsible for his dreams. Art is decorative, sure, but the decorations of Sea House are cut from the same stone as the house itself, and so art becomes a way of exposing what lies beneath, a labor of exposition. Vision and work and no place to hide, that's art.

I confess that I put off writing this post for quite some time because I don't get some of the references Youmans uses. I tell myself that doesn't stop me from getting some of the underlying meanings, though. Mostly I didn't want to embarrass myself by not understanding the James Fennimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne references. I can see some of them but I don't know what they mean. This is not an argument that Youmans should've either explained the references or simplified the book (she should not have). I'm just saying that there's more to the narrative than I understand, which is a respectable position for a novel to hold.

I should remember to say something about Youmans' extraordinary prose. She's a poet, and her narrative rings with the sounds of formal verse and scripture, surprising touches all over the place:
At the opposite end of the room bulked an enormous wardrobe in black veneer with engraved bronze and pewter inlay.

[I love bulked as a verb]

"You're awake," she said, and nodded. "Welcome to woe."

[...] an occasional topknot of branches punctuating the walls.

[That's very fine, a topknot of branches. I won't quote it, but on page 148 there is a description of a hedge maze that moves through the seasons, from spring to winter, that's quite lovely]

He walked in a rage of brightness that robbed her of the last vestiges of movement...
The writing is not dense; there's a light shining through the carefully-placed gaps, the unfilled chinks. Maybe Youmans' prose is like a rose bush, prickly and beautiful and full of open space; hard and dangerous upcroppings in support of beauty. Something like that. All of that.

Monday, April 13, 2015

'Even bad books are books and therefore sacred.'

So long, Günter. There was a period of my life that lasted about ten years, maybe longer, when I was constantly reading Grass's novels. My first (bad, unpublished) novel steals a great deal from Dog Years and, now that I think about it, The Tin Drum. A couple of weeks ago I picked up a copy of Katz und Maus, the second book of the "Danzig Trilogy," which I intend to read auf Deutsch this summer. Maybe sooner.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

the only thing of importance was to radiate beauty

The Baron took not the slightest notice of anything his wife said or did, while the Baroness, oblivious to her effect on others, kept up a ceaseless outpouring of words. This was their customary behavior, whether at home or in public. Despite his abstracted manner, the Baron was perfectly capable on occasion of mercilessly nailing a person's character with a single, incisive, pithy observation, on which, however, he never deigned to elaborate. His wife, on the other hand, no matter what torrent of words she might expend on that same individual, never succeeded in bringing him to life.

They owned a Rolls Royce, the second ever purchased in Japan; it was a distinction they treasured as evidence of their social position. It was the Baron's custom to don a silk smoking jacket after dinner and, thus attired, to spend the rest of the evening ignoring his wife's inexhaustible flood of chatter.
(pg 117)
His eye was caught by the iridescent back of a beetle that had been standing on the windowsill but was now advancing steadily into his room. Two reddish purple stripes ran the length of its brilliant oval shell of green and gold. Now it waved its antennae cautiously as it began to inch its way forward on its tiny hacksaw legs, which reminded Kiyoaki of minuscule jeweler's blades. In the midst of time's dissolving whirlpool, how absurd that this tiny dot of richly concentrated brilliance should endure in a secure world of its own. As he watched, he gradually became fascinated. Little by little the beetle kept edging its glittering body closer to him as if its pointless progress were a lesson that when traversing a world of unceasing flux, the only thing of importance was to radiate beauty. Suppose he were to assess his protective armor of sentiment in such terms. Was it aesthetically as naturally striking as that of this beetle? And was it tough enough to be as good a shield as the beetles?

At that moment, he almost persuaded himself that all its surroundings--leafy trees, blue sky, clouds, tiled roofs--were there purely to serve this beetle which in itself was the very hub, the very nucleus of the universe.
(pg 157)
He had never taken so close a look at each blade of grass. For nothing less than the most painstaking care would do, because despite the ring's gold setting, its large emerald would be next to invisible in the grass. The drizzle became raindrops on the back of his neck, finally slid under his tight collar and rolled down his back, a sensation that aroused a yearning for the warm monsoons of Siam. The light green at the roots of the grass gave the illusion that a ray of sunshine had broken through, but the sky remained overcast. Here and there, there were small white wildflowers in the grass, their heads drooping under the weight of the rain, but the powdery whiteness of their petals remained as bright as ever. Once Prince Pattanadid's eye was caught by a bright glittering spot under a saw-tooth leaf of a tall weed. Sure that his ring could not have lodged there, he nevertheless turned the leaf over to find a small, brilliantly colored beetle clinging to the underside to escape the rain.
(pg 204)
Anger was useless against the Count, who was neither acquainted with logic nor remotely inclined to initiate any course of action.
(pg 318)
"What's that you're always reading?" asked the Marquis' son who was beautiful.

"Nothing...," replied the Marquis' son who was ugly. He thrust the book behind him, but not before Kiyoaki's eye caught the name Leopardi printed on the spine. The gilt lettering cast a faint reflection that flashed over the dry grass and was gone.
(pg 338)

All of this from Michael Gallagher's 1972 translation of Yukio Mishima's 1968 novel Spring Snow. Mishima is making an argument against the weakening of the Japanese Imperial house, a weakening brought on by the post-World War II Constitution and the influence of Western commercial culture. I am not sure that I understand the argument at all, even if I see the conflicts acted out in this novel. Mishima believed that restoring honor to the holy throne of the Emperor was a cause worth killing and dying for. He did not overthrow the Emperor. His suicide did not inspire a rebellion against Western values. Perhaps if he'd been a worse writer, a Chernyshekvsky, for example.

mashed-potato sky, peppered with birds

On the bus this morning I met a 28 year-old man who had come to America from Sudan about four years ago. He sat in the back corner of the bus, an immense living barrier between the world and his tiny wife, who slept with her head against his chest. I never asked his name but he had beautiful, perfect teeth. He is attempting to get along with humanity these days, having spent many years as a soldier. The first time he killed someone in battle, he was about ten, he thinks, still unsure for what cause he was fighting. Now he believes in compromise, in empathy. "I will have no more enemies," he says.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

"consecution"

The sentence is not the idea.
The sentence is not the basic building block of fiction.
A work of fiction is not a series of sentences.
Fiction does not work--not at all--at "the sentence level."
Language is an imperfect vessel, a poorly-ground lens, a leaking tin pot, and words are not what they signify. They are only words. Life cannot be contained in language.
Fiction does not grow out of sentences.
The idea is a vision.
The real vision is always larger than a real writer. A false writer is always bigger than his vision.
The real vision is always larger than language, than sentences, than words.
Sometimes the real vision is an imperfect vessel, a poorly-ground lens, a leaking tin pot.
Some of these claims may be true; they feel true. They feel true today.
These claims might make me look old-fashioned and stodgy. Bailey is not part of the Modern American Cult of the Sentence. No, he is not. Art concerned with language might well be fiction, might well be good art, but art about language that is concerned with form and unconcerned with ideas about humanity is not fiction. It's a type of fiction, you may claim, a new type of fiction, but you are mistaken. It is something else. Or, it may be a type of fiction (a new type of fiction) but it is not important. As fiction.
The sentences do not contain the potential energy of the piece. Or if they do, it's not much of a piece, your leaky tin pot. The potential energy of the piece is in the writer, in the writer's ideas, the writer's vision of humanity. That has nothing to do with any sentence except the death sentence under which we all labor. I end with a lousy pun, a bad joke.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Христос воскрес!

и он очень вкусный.

hot cross buns and photo by Mighty Reader

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

the problem of protagonists in Kafka's novels

I could--maybe I should--write about the interesting and groundbreaking elements of Franz Kafka's fiction. Instead, I choose to complain. Plenty of other people have written about why we should read Kafka. We should read Kafka. You should read Kafka. I've read Kafka, all of his fiction. I come today not to praise, nor to bury, but to bitch, I guess. Or, to put a better spin on it, to talk about craft and point of view.

I don't know what to do with the protagonists of Kafka's three unfinished novels. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that Kafka approached his subject matter from the wrong point of view; centering the story on the isolated male figure is a poor narrative strategy that effectively hides some of Kafka's strengths as a writer. He was a better writer than these novels make him look, I will argue. Or he could've been, had he not made this annoying male character the focus of his novels.

The protagonist of Kafka's three unfinished novels is a fish out of water who struggles constantly against a world he can't understand, a world that is fundamentally impossible to understand because the rules of the world are secrets whose custodians have all the power, which they guard jealously. The protagonist misunderstands almost everything said to him; nearly every other character in these novels understands the part they are expected to play in the baffling world--they are not baffled, or if they are, they accept that they aren't supposed to know anything. Only the protagonist digs, explores, examines, contradicts and demands explanations and logical ordering of things. Although the protagonist himself is just as irrational and selfish as the world he fights against. That's one of the jokes. It's a good joke, too. Everything is irrational, everyone claims that he is a rational agent, everyone is wrong about that, truth is mercurial and belongs to whoever has power at any given moment. That's all good stuff. But the problem is, that's a single joke that Kafka hammers out over and over again, and his other themes--the themes of actual human existence and human interaction on a smaller scale than Government or Religion or Society--the stronger, more deeply-felt themes of Kafka's fiction, are buried (in these unfinished novels) beneath this joke, beneath the single-purpose male protagonist. The protagonist and his role as challenging agent in a world of irrationality limits the possibilities of Kafka's novels, shoves the author's best investigations to the side and weakens the books.

In Amerika, the story begins as the tale of Karl Rossmann, a young man whose parents send him abroad to get him away from a scandal at home (he's impregnated a servant). Very quickly, however, Amerika becomes merely a picaresque novel of a foreigner in a (absurd and funny enough) fictional America, interacting with clowns and being buffeted by the winds of fate and bad decision. The young man at the center of the story doesn't understand America, a monstrous nation of loud cities peopled by loud citizens. The immense scale of architecture and urban sprawl and the irony of the smallness and selfishness of Americans becomes the point of the novel, as Rossmann and his humanity disappear; he is just another prop, a thing to move around from set piece to set piece. There was nowhere to go with all of this and Kafka eventually stopped writing.

The Trial is the novel that everyone reads. Orson Wells made a pretty good film of it, with Anthony Perkins jittering through every scene as Josef K. The Castle is essentially the same story as The Trial: K's attempts to understand and communicate with the Castle officials are more or less an identical struggle to Josef K's attempts to influence the course of the investigation into his undefined crimes. The narratives are about systems in which humans are trapped; the narratives are not about humans.

These books, all three of them, therefore spend most of their narrative energy pointed away from humans and point instead at institutions and abstractions. They turn into philosophical arguments, each book an endless Hegelian dialectical that never moves past the original thesis/antithesis conflict. I get that this is Kafka's thing, the ironical accusal of society as dehumanizing system, but his books end up being dehumanized systems themselves. His short stories do not have this problem, and his short stories are rightly more widely read because of this difference.

What I mean is, because Kafka's leading men lack humanity since they are nothing but mouths from which pour arguments and claims about truth, these novels lack any core of humanity. The protagonists maintain a running commentary about large sociopolitical elements and tramp around landscapes to get nowhere, and too often while reading these books "I have thought some of Nature's journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably." After a hundred or so pages, I begin to miss the company of people, of characters based on human beings.

I didn't quite figure this out until I was reading the last fifty or so pages of Kafka's final attempt at a novel, The Castle. Most of The Castle's final chapter is a monologue from a minor character, a chambermaid named Pepi. The Pepi chapter is great stuff (until K starts talking):
She was a chambermaid, she had an insignificant job with few prospects, like every other girl she dreamed of a wonderful future, you can’t forbid anyone to dream, but she didn’t seriously expect to get very far, she had come to terms with what she had already attained. And then Frieda suddenly left the bar, so suddenly that the landlord didn’t have a suitable replacement to hand, he looked around and his eye fell on Pepi, who had certainly done her own part here by putting herself forward. At that time she loved K. as she had never loved anyone before, she had been living for months in her tiny, dark room down below, and expected to spend years there, her whole life if the worst came to the worst, with no one paying her any attention, and then along came K. all of a sudden, a hero, a deliverer of maidens, and he had opened the way for her to rise. Not that he knew anything about her, he hadn’t done it for her sake, but that didn’t make her any less grateful. On the night when she was appointed barmaid—the appointment wasn’t certain yet, but it was very probable—she spent hours talking to him, whispering her thanks into his ear. What he had done seemed even greater to her because the burden he had taken on his own shoulders was Frieda, there was something amazingly unselfish in the fact that to free Pepi from her predicament he was making Frieda his mistress, an unattractive thin girl not as young as she used to be, with short, sparse hair, a sly girl too, who always had secrets of some kind, just the thing you might expect from her appearance; although her face and body were undoubtedly a miserable sight, she must at least have had other secrets that no one could know about, perhaps to do with her alleged relationship with Klamm. At the time, Pepi even entertained ideas like this: was it possible that K. really loved Frieda, wasn’t he deceiving himself, or was he perhaps deceiving no one but Frieda, and would the only result of all this be just Pepi’s rise in the world? Would K. see his mistake then, or stop trying to hide it, and take notice of Pepi instead of Frieda? That wasn’t such a wild idea of Pepi’s, for as one girl against another she could hold her own against Frieda very well, no one would deny that, and it had been primarily Frieda’s position as barmaid and the lustre with which Frieda had managed to endow it that had dazzled K. at the moment when he met her. And then Pepi had dreamed that when she had the position herself K. would come to plead with her, and she would have the choice of either listening to K. and losing the job, or turning him down and rising higher. She had worked it out that she would give up everything and lower herself to his level, and teach him the true love that he could never know with Frieda, the love that is independent of all the grand positions in the world. But then it all turned out differently.

[from Oxford World Classics 2009 edition. Anthea Bell, translator]
That's a good story; that's a book I wish I'd been reading. Kafka could've worked in all of his themes about isolation and power, all his ideas about religion and government, but rather than 350 pages of abstract argument interrupted by absurdity, Kafka could've produced a dramatization of actual human suffering as the result of these abstractions propping up society. That would be a powerful book. You can see where Orhan Pamuk, in his novel Snow, took up all the wrong elements of The Castle, letting his people remain slogan-spewing machines, and writing a pretty empty book. Yes, this entire post is about what kinds of novels I want to read. I am making an aesthetic argument. There are reasons Kafka's novels are influential, but there are also reasons why they are not more widely read. They contain good ideas, but they are not good novels, being fundamentally flawed structurally.