Monday, February 6, 2012

Out of the blue, and into the black

Anton Chekhov, one of the greatest writers of fiction, never wrote a novel. He tried, and even published some long works that he thought would one day become a proper novel in the vein of Tolstoy, but Chekhov never managed to figure out how to structure a novel-length work. He moans about it in letters to his publisher and promises one month to finish and the next month he throws up his hands and declares the novel an impossible form. Some people, maybe, are best left off as miniaturists. Which is fine. Chopin wrote no symphonies, and a great deal of the best music of the “classical” period is the chamber music writ by guys best known for their orchestral works. So small is nothing to be ashamed of. The short story is a form that continues to confound me, after all. This preamble is all to say that some people shouldn’t write novels.

Edgar Allen Poe, possibly, is one of those people. His short novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, while certainly influential over everyone from Melville to Twain and beyond, is not a very good book. Formally, it’s a hash. The three sections have little to do with each other and the ending is abrupt (though the endnote by Poe is amusing and points to one possible interpretation of the final act of the story), and there has been considerable critical noise to the effect that Poe simply abandoned the novel when he realized he had no ending. A good case can be made for Pym being an artistic failure. And nobody can tell you what Poe was getting at with this book; what—if any—the overarching themes are is an unanswerable question though plenty of critics have given it a go. The last footnote in the text is quite long and really funny; if I had the book to hand I’d quote it, for it lists about fifty ways Pym has been interpreted, as everything from promotion of the “hollow-earth” theory to a wish-fulfillment fantasy of Poe’s having to do with his hated foster father. A great deal of evidence supports the idea that the third act, at least, is a shrill warning to the South that the Northern states with their abolitionists are going to stir up a bloody rebellion among the black slaves and the white race ought to be wary because you cannot trust the North and you certainly cannot trust the black race. Poe was writing in 1837 and lots of critics have pointed out all of the white=good/black=evil images in Pym. See also, I suppose, Mat Johnson’s recent novel Pym, which I have not read but I’ve read about, and which book actually got me to read the Poe, for I plan to read Mr Johnson’s novel this year some time.

So not a good book, as I say, a total mess that takes forever to get anywhere and may at its heart carry a frightened racist message. Still, one can’t help but see how Pym has influenced other writers. Moby-Dick is Poe’s novel writ much larger, Melville showing Poe how it ought to be done. Everyone should know that Moby-Dick is a masterpiece even though it is a leisurely stroll with many nonfiction digressions and a pretty abrupt ending, just like Poe’s book. You can see ripples of Pym in Moby-Dick, and you might see other ripples in Huck Finn, though the message about race is turned on its head by Twain. Certainly you can also draw comparisons between Pym and Heart of Darkness, with Conrad hewing pretty closely to Poe's symbolism and possible fear of a black planet. Hmm. Conrad wrote in 1899. Twain in 1884. Melville in 1851. I don't know what any of those dates really mean regarding theme and interpretation or why I added them to this post, but there they are for the curious.

There’s more to be said about Poe’s only novel, but I’m too scattered, too whelmed with deadlines at the office, and too much not the right guy to speak intelligently about literature to say more than I have. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is an odd little failure of a book, but I’m glad I read it. I am sure that there are many novels that fail as novels yet are still worth reading.


  1. More and more I think I'm not meant to write novels either. I can't figure out how to navigate through the form from beginning to end. Usually, the ends are horrible cliched things. I think maybe the novella is for me!

  2. I might be getting closer with short stories; the Variations on a Theme thing I came up with is mostly solid writing, but it's still 4,000 words long. Maybe I can't build anything worth reading in a brief space.

  3. My other plan is to write a bunch of half novels and then send them to you to finish and name.

  4. I agree with you that some writers shouldn't attempt to write a novel. There's absolutely nothing wrong with writing short stories, of course. I think they may even be harder than writing a novel.

    I never enjoyed any of Angela Carter's novels. They were exhausting after a very short while. And I could never get interested in Eudora Welty's novels even though her short stories are among my favorites and will live in my memory forever.

  5. Davin: Okay, but you have to write the middles and I'll write the beginnings and endings. I will name them all Peanut.

    Cynthia: I have that same relationship with Jhumpa Lahiri. I love her short stories, but reading The Namesake was a grinding labor that was simply tiresome after about 100 pages. Though there are writers (Flannery O'Connor leaps to mind) who can do both, though she wrote very slowly even before she got sick and only managed two novels. I'm trying to think of other good writers who were successful in both short and long forms. I say "good" so that nobody will chime in with Asimov or King or Vonnegut or one of those guys.

  6. Tolstoy wrote really long novels and also novellas. Does that count? I've only read one of this short stories, and I wasn't impressed.

  7. We have a volume of Tolstoy's stories on the shelf at home but I've not gotten around to it yet. I'll take your "not impressed" as evidence. But you like his novellas, right? Taras Bulba? And you like Karenina. I have a high opinion of War and Peace. Which was not, as far as I know, in any way based on Poe's novel.

  8. Oh, wait: Taras Bulba is Gogol. What's the short Tolstoy you read last year that you really liked? Have you read Kreuzer Sonata or The Death of Ivan Ilyich??

  9. I wonder how much is attention span more than ability to tackle novel-length works. (I first typed that "attention spam" which works as well, I guess.)

    Writers have "high ideaphoria" and in a case of someone like Poe especially who seems to have a frenetic brain -- maybe he just can't rein the horses in hard enough.

    Maybe a better analogy is runners -- you have sprinters and marathoners. Like bodies, maybe our brains are designed or develop for certain methods of processing.

    But what do I know. I was looking for a bacon sandwich and wandered in here by accident. :)

  10. Wendy: Bacon is good! I could go for a bacon sandwich about now.

    I think part of Poe's frenzy had to do with his drinking and his near-constant state of poverty. He seems like a difficult character who quarreled with everyone. But I think there's something to the sprinter/marathon (and middle-distance runner) analogy.

    In a work email last week I accidentally typed "short attention spasm."

  11. More "good in long and short":

    Cervantes, Goethe, Balzac, Hawthorne, Melville, Flaubert, Hugo, Twain, James, Joyce, Nabokov.

    The example that has recently been throwing me off is Machado de Assis, whose novels and short stories, both brilliant, seem to be written on entirely different principles, as if by different writers.

  12. Some day I'll have to follow you farther into your Portuguese expeditions. Thanks for the additions to the list. The first seven of those names I know only through their long works.

    I think that some writers have very specific ideas about the short and long forms and so have different uses for the forms, if that makes any sense. Garcia Marquez's novels surely operate on different principles than his short fiction, but you can see that they're all written by the same guy. Did de Assis write his novels and short stories at the same time, or was there a big break, like with Joyce, who wrote the big novels and never returned to the short form after that?

  13. At the same time. The only, more or less, Machado stories in English are from his post-1880 "late period," which coincides with his best novels.

    The funny thing is that the novels contain his formal experimentation with narrators and form and all of the usual postmodern stuff (except this is 1880!) while the stories, read as a group, create the panoramic view of Rio de Janeiro.

  14. Now I have to read some of both.

    The more I learn about the history of the novel, the less I believe in anything like a linear progression of style. Everything has always been happening at the same time, rolling merrily along down parallel streets.