Friday, April 27, 2012

Mrs. Penniman's imagination was not chilled by trifles

The widowed aunt of Washington Square's protagonist:

Mrs. Penniman took too much satisfaction in the sentimental shadows of this little drama to have, for the moment, any great interest in dissipating them. She wished the plot to thicken, and the advice that she gave her niece tended, in her own imagination, to produce this result. It was rather incoherent counsel, and from one day to another it contradicted itself; but it was pervaded by an earnest desire that Catherine should do something striking. "You must ACT, my dear; in your situation the great thing is to act," said Mrs. Penniman, who found her niece altogether beneath her opportunities. Mrs. Penniman's real hope was that the girl would make a secret marriage, at which she should officiate as brideswoman or duenna. She had a vision of this ceremony being performed in some subterranean chapel--subterranean chapels in New York were not frequent, but Mrs. Penniman's imagination was not chilled by trifles--and of the guilty couple--she liked to think of poor Catherine and her suitor as the guilty couple--being shuffled away in a fast-whirling vehicle to some obscure lodging in the suburbs, where she would pay them (in a thick veil) clandestine visits, where they would endure a period of romantic privation, and where ultimately, after she should have been their earthly providence, their intercessor, their advocate, and their medium of communication with the world, they should be reconciled to her brother in an artistic tableau, in which she herself should be somehow the central figure. She hesitated as yet to recommend this course to Catherine, but she attempted to draw an attractive picture of it to Morris Townsend. She was in daily communication with the young man, whom she kept informed by letters of the state of affairs in Washington Square. As he had been banished, as she said, from the house, she no longer saw him; but she ended by writing to him that she longed for an interview. This interview could take place only on neutral ground, and she bethought herself greatly before selecting a place of meeting. She had an inclination for Greenwood Cemetery, but she gave it up as too distant; she could not absent herself for so long, as she said, without exciting suspicion. Then she thought of the Battery, but that was rather cold and windy, besides one's being exposed to intrusion from the Irish emigrants who at this point alight, with large appetites, in the New World and at last she fixed upon an oyster saloon in the Seventh Avenue, kept by a negro--an establishment of which she knew nothing save that she had noticed it in passing. She made an appointment with Morris Townsend to meet him there, and she went to the tryst at dusk, enveloped in an impenetrable veil. He kept her waiting for half an hour--he had almost the whole width of the city to traverse--but she liked to wait, it seemed to intensify the situation. She ordered a cup of tea, which proved excessively bad, and this gave her a sense that she was suffering in a romantic cause. When Morris at last arrived, they sat together for half an hour in the duskiest corner of a back shop; and it is hardly too much to say that this was the happiest half-hour that Mrs. Penniman had known for years. The situation was really thrilling, and it scarcely seemed to her a false note when her companion asked for an oyster stew, and proceeded to consume it before her eyes.

I am tempted to say that James made Mrs Penniman so perversely amused by the doings of others--so hugely ready to turn any human drama into but entertaining dramatics--so that we would notice that Dr Sloper (the protagonist's father) shared this trait, though in a lesser degree. The good doctor is wise, and a good judge of character, except of course that he cannot see his own character flaws.

Which is, admittedly, a cliche. This is an early novel from James, and while it is peopled with a vibrant and engaging cast, they are less fully human than the characters in James' later novels. Washington Square is packed with fine examples of direct, conflict-building dialogue where nobody wants to boldly insult anyone, but by God they'll say what they mean to say and they'll say it right now. I am willing to bet that G.B. Shaw was familiar with the writings of Mr James. But real people rarely speak like this. That's a quibble, however, and the best conversations in Washington Square are rich and multilayered and the sparring is as good as anything you'll find in Shakespeare. A bold statement, yes, but I have made it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Henry James Gets Down to Business

H.G. Wells once called Henry James "Leviathan moving a pebble." James Thurber, I think, once said that Henry James' writing was like an elephant trying to pick up a pearl. Which is more-or-less the same comment as Wells', but it's a better image so points to Thurber. It's true that the writing in the "big" James novels was enormous and dense and that all of this mass was used to examine the smallest of things, generally a delicate moment of sensitive awareness wherein a character realizes that life is not quite what he imagined it to be. Sort of like using a wind tunnel to create a fleeting sigh, though I'm just trying to outdo Thurber and I see that I have failed. Sigh.

But not all of James' writing can be slandered with the lie of ponderousness! For example, I'm currently reading the early short novel Washington Square. It is a very rapid novel, moving briskly forward with each word. Compare it to Portrait of a Lady and you'll see what I mean: in WS James puts as much into 12 pages as it would take him 120 to do in Portrait. But the narrative doesn't feel rushed, either; it's just, as I say, briskly rolling along.

Of course, in a work that gets underway so quickly and keeps up a great deal of forward motion, a writer has to get right down to business with every line. There's no filler, no passage work, no fluff and no coming to the point reluctantly. If James says something about a character, or gives that character a line of dialogue, you can rest assured that he's building the plot and developing character. Yes, usually at the same time. It's a remarkable primer on the craft of storytelling. I don't know why it's not taught in MFA programs. Maybe it is. But I doubt it.

Here is Catherine Sloper (the heroine of the tale) in conversation with Morris Townsend (a young man who has come to woo Catherine):

She confessed that she was not particularly fond of literature. Morris Townsend agreed with her that books were tiresome things; only, as he said, you had to read a good many before you found it out. He had been to places that people had written books about, and they were not a bit like the descriptions. To see for yourself--that was the great thing; he always tried to see for himself.

That sounds like nothing, like filler, like James giving a loose description of a couple of young people chatting, but it's not. There is so much happening in those four sentences: Catherine is not well-read, and now Morris knows it. Morris lets on that he's read a good many books and so he is well-read, but he's above all that now. He's sophisticated and worldly, but look how down-to-earth he really is. He tries to see for himself. And Catherine, you know, should see for herself just how honest and charming Morris is. He goes on to call himself "natural," contrasting his way of against with the artifice of art. See what a bright, charming, superior person he is. But of course he doesn't look down on Catherine, because she's come to the conclusion that literature is tiresome without bothering to tire herself out. Look how charming and bright and natural she is, too! No wonder Catherine is so flattered by his attention. All of this in four sentences, though of course you get all of the context in the actual novel, so you know something already about Catherine and you've seen by now how quickly Morris Townsend has descended upon the young lady. Still, it's a good lesson in brevity and making every word count.

Also, why did no one tell me how funny this book is? It's not the "Oh, what exquisite drollery, Henry" of his later novels; it's laugh-out-loud funny, Hank.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What's On the Music Stand

Last night I practiced violin. I've been trying to do that more often, to get back into practice preparatory to seducing young TG into forming a duo. Which means that I've been working on tangos, because everyone loves tango, right?

Currently I'm working out of the Boosey & Hawkes book The Tango Fiddler, which is a sort of intermediate-level book but that's fine with me. Who wants to play above seventh position? Not me, that's who. Most of the tunes are playable in first and third position anyway, with extensions up for octave harmonics. Easy peasy, is what I say. The challenges come in the rhythmic fufuras, with the syncopated melodies and weird accents. It's all a lot of fun, kids. Last night I worked on two tangos: "La Cumparsita" and "La Payanca." "La Cumparsita" is the tune you hear in almost every film or Bugs Bunny cartoon when a tango is called for, so it's an old warhorse, a cliche, but it's still a lot of fun.

Also on the music stand is Monte's "Czardas," which is a crowd favorite, right? I'm lousy at the spiccato but I'm working on it. The artificial harmonics section annoys the hell out of me, too, but it'll come in time. I admit that I cheat and play the initial melody on both the G and D strings, rather than all sul G. Anyway, that whole first section is all about phrasing and a big vibrato, not so much about unity of tone. At least, not for me. You don't care anyway.

What else? The Gavottes I and II, from Suite VI in D Major for Violoncello by Bach, as arranged for violin. It's of course nicer on cello, but the bariolage passage at the end of gavotte II is fun. Von Weber's "Country Dance" was in there, too. A few nights ago I started working on Faure's "Berceuse" because it's a lovely tune and you can get away with a lot of wide, schmaltzy vibrato. The only form of vibrato I possess is, of course, wide and schmaltzy. I am working on a narrower, more self-conscious vibrato. A prim sort of vibrato, if you will.

Bits and bobs from Mozart, Beethoven and Bach find their way into the mix depending on my mood, but I don't think I played any of that last night. I was attempting to focus on the tangos. My warm up routine these days is a three-octave scale (currently D major, starting on the second finger in 3rd position and you still don't care) and arpeggios, followed by some exercises related to the five sound points courtesy of Simon Reynolds.

I am by no means a brilliant violinist, but Mighty Reader doesn't seem to mind so that's all right, then. The violin I own, since you continue to not be interested, is an instrument built in 1914 by a guy in Prague. We call it "the Czech hussy." The Czech hussy is a fine fiddle and what I really need to do is find a better bow for her.

Monday, April 23, 2012

"Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!"

Happy 113th birthday, Vladimir Nabokov. We try to stay busy in your laboratory, but it's less fun without you.

And yes; hey, Shakespeare. We miss you, too.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

too glorious a season

Words from the service floated back to me. In the midst of life, we are in death. Autumn is too glorious a season for such morbid thoughts. Even though it's full of dying things, there is still a wonder in its sense of change. And even its dead leaves turn deep into the soil, leading inevitably to spring growth again. So one might as well say, in the midst of death, we are in life.

--Seattle Sleuth by Alexandra MacKenzie

Friday, April 20, 2012

How To Look at a Story

Here are some visual aids I came up with to help me envision the overall narrative shape of some of my novels.

First, this is the basic three-act, linear narrative that I used in The Astrologer and Cocke & Bull. The red arrow is the main story. The blue arrows are subplots. The angled yellow arrow is the level of tension/conflict:

Next we have the narrative structure I used in The Last Guest, which shows a linear central story interrupted by a series of disconnected character explorations, mostly in the form of flashbacks, that do little to further the action of the central story:

Lastly is the narrative structure I seem to be using for my work-in-progress, Go Home, Miss America. Essentially, action moves forward to the midpoint of the book when the characters are forced to change course and move toward the end of the book. There are overlapping segments of plot and theme. There are increasing amounts of tension. There are loopings backward in symbolism and character. It's by far the least straightforward structure so far, though perhaps my very first attempt at a novel was even less straightforward. Hmm. "We're going 'round in circles."

Of what use are these charts to you? None whatsoever. They are, in fact, of limited use even to me, the fella what wrote the books in question. But I think anything that helps a writer visualize the overall movement of the narrative is a good thing. Just this morning on the bus, I came up with a reassuring way of thinking about the second half of the book I'm writing. Reassuring ways of thinking are good. Every writer who's deep in the middle of a first draft needs reassurance. I'm at that point in the process where I no longer trust my judgment, and so I must trust my original impulses and ideas about the book. Once, many many months ago, this all seemed like a really good idea for a story. Just because I can't see it now, that doesn't mean it's not there. It always works out in the end, mysteriously enough.

Anyway, I am going to push the idea that this sort of graphing/mapping/charting exercise will be helpful to anyone writing long-form fiction, and will reveal things about the story to the writer that are hard to see otherwise. It also forces you to decide which narrative/story elements you think are most important, though certainly you can make many charts for a single novel. But it's not Schenkerian analysis and there are no rules. Give it a go, kids! It's fun and there's no wrong way to go about it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

High Degrees of Difficulty

I have not written a single word of my work-in-progress since April 6th. That's almost two weeks. Today at lunch, I swear, I'll get a page or two written to start Chapter 11.

Why is it taking me so long to write this rough draft? Why has there been a break of a couple of weeks between every chapter? It's vexing, it is.

Part of it has to do with the formal structure of the narrative: alternating chapters telling two separate stories that intersect, sort of, about where I am now. The odd-numbered chapters are written in a close third-person point of view that sticks with one man. The even-numbered chapters are written in a more free omniscient point of view that roams around the characters though the focus stays mostly on one woman. The prose style in each of the story lines is different, too. Essentially, then, I'm really writing two novellas a the same time.

It takes me a while to switch gears from one to the other at the end of a chapter. And, because it's taking about a month for each chapter (admittedly, these are long chapters), I tend to forget the hows and whys of one story line while working on the other.

I could just write each story line out fully, first one and then the other, and then weave them together, but the narrative doesn't work like that and each chapter comments in subtle ways on the previous chapter and there are foil characters in opposing story lines and things like that. You can't really write that unless you're writing from one end of the total narrative to the other. At least I can't.

Another thing is that this formal structure, where the stories alternate and by the time you get to the end of a chapter you're immersed in one character's world and you don't necessarily want to leave that world to continue the opposing storyline, really bothers me as a reader. I don't so much like books that do what I'm doing here. Which is, of course, part of the challenge: I'm trying to conquer a formal schema I dislike.

This book has all sorts of challenges for me. There's the above-mentioned formal challenge, and there's the challenge of not using a three-act structure for either of the story arcs (I am using my soon-to-be-famous Two Act Structure, best summed up as "Actions->Consequences"), and there's the challenge of starting the book by giving the reader the sort of worst traits of the lead male character, giving up unsavory details that might best be saved for later in the narrative once the reader has become emotionally invested. I want readers to keep reading despite the actions of Our Hero, pulled forward into the book by the beauty of the prose and what I hope are intriguing ideas. We'll see. I'm working hard over here.

So anyway, I have something like a paragraph of scribbled ideas for this chapter, and I have to turn that into a 5,000-word chapter that combines the two opposing story lines without losing the established prose style, voice and point of view of the odd-numbered chapters. Which means that we'll see the female lead character through the eyes of the male lead character for the first time, and that'll be interesting, right?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Emerson String Quartet, April 17 2012

Last night Mighty Reader and I went to hear the Emerson String Quartet play an evening's worth of Mozart chamber music, the "King of Prussia" set of late quartets. We're both fans of the ESQ and we catch their performance whenever they come to Seattle. I'm a longtime fan of Mozart and I was hoping that this would convert Mighty Reader to the faith.

The program:
String Quartet No. 21 in D major, K. 575 (1789)
String Quartet No. 22 in B-flat major, K. 589 (1790)
Adagio and Fugue, K. 546 (1788)
String Quartet No. 23 in F major, K. 590 (1790)

The playing was, of course, excellent. Eugene Drucker moves a lot more than I remembered and I never noticed before that his bowing isn't exactly parallel to the bridge. Still, I like his tone a lot and all four of the guys have technique to spare. You might think that Mozart is trivial music, but a lot of the passagework in these pieces requires serious chops.

The king of Prussia for whom these quartets were written was a good amateur cellist, so David Finckel had a good share of the melody. Too bad the king of Prussia didn't come through and actually pay Mozart for a whole set of six quartets; I'd sure like to hear three more in this vein. David Finckel, by the way, is leaving the ESQ after the 2013 season, so if the boys come to your town before then, be sure to go. I'm certain Finckel's replacement will be a fine player, but it won't be the same. It never is.

I don't think that last night's show made Mighty Reader a follower of Mozart, but she certainly liked the adagio and fugue. Who can blame her? Me, I liked all the parts. I've heard these quartets before (courtesy of the Alban Berg Quartet) but I'd never noticed that a lot of surprising stuff happens in the middle movements; there are passages that don't sound like Mozart at all: there are passages that sound like 20th-century music, even. Yes, Mozart uses a lot of the same gestures in many of his pieces and certainly his style was often one of variations on a single theme, but what of it? It's all gorgeous and his sparse textures do not equal fluffy music. He does things with gapped melodies and using non-chord tones on stressed beats that I don't hear in anyone else, and he lets those brief chromatic figures crop up in surprising spots, and he has a way--does old Wolfgang--of modulating to new keys that's effortless and tugs inside my soul somehow. It's just, as I am so fond of saying, marvelous stuff. The more familiar I become with Mozart's music, the more I actually play his stuff on my own violin, the more I admire it. People discount Mozart because his music is so beautiful on the surface and then they don't notice that it's beautiful below the surface, too.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Uncollected Thoughts After Visiting the Gauguin Polynesia Exhibit

Yesterday evening, Mighty Reader and I took in the Gauguin exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. Neither she nor I are what you’d call fans of Mr Gauguin, though there were some pieces each of us liked. The Gauguin works were mixed in with a collection of Polynesian art and craft items including war clubs, carved boxes, tiki figurines (and man-sized figures), hats, and a few other odds and ends. There was a turtle-shell head ornament that once belonged to Robert Louis Stevenson and is now claimed by the British Museum. Most of the Polynesian items in the show date from the 19th century though a few of them are from the early 20th century.

On the whole, we were not overwhelmed by either the Gauguin paintings, carvings and prints or by the Polynesian carvings and objects. Maybe we were just tired after our vigorous weekend, or maybe this stuff just didn’t send us. Part of the problem for me might be that much of the Polynesian art was actually made for the European tourist trade, and not for Polynesians. Which sort of puts me in the same camp in which Gauguin found himself when he first traveled to the Pacific: he lamented that the native culture was already dead, already falling under the barbarous influence of Europe and capitalism. Alcohol, venereal diseases and Christianity had infected the islands. [Not that plenty of the carved figures weren't downright alien. Maybe it's that the Polynesian art seemed downright unfriendly; who'd want that stuff in his own house? There's a large chunk of unexplored psychology here about how I am put off by artifacts from an overtly masculine, warrior-celebrating society.]

Mighty Reader observed that Gauguin seemed to have objectified the aboriginals he painted, wasting little effort on differentiating the individual faces of his figures. I agree with her judgment, and I also found myself annoyed at Gauguin’s anger when he returned to Europe where his paintings didn’t sell. He had been, after all, a very successful businessman before throwing his hat into the art ring, and he did travel to Polynesia in order to paint something new and different for the European art market. So he was as exploitative of the aborigines as the imperialists he decried upon his arrival. Maybe. I’m trying hard not to sum old Paul up here. I'd rather just think about the artist and not about the retired stock broker.

He could certainly draw. There were some pencil sketches on display and they were really appealing. Gauguin understood the solidity of objects and with just a bit of shadow or a thickened outline he could create depth and weight. In his paintings, too, I admired how solid his figures were despite the relative flatness of the colors. A lot of his paintings at first look like posters in four or five colors but when you get close to them you see how much depth of field he was able to achieve, how three-dimensional everything is, even (somehow) when most of the space is taken up by a solidly-colored drape of fabric. I have no idea how he did that, but it’s a subtle and marvelous effect.

In general I liked his colors, too. Thinking back on it I’m reminded of a display of fresh fruits and vegetables. Maybe I’m just hungry, though. His self-portraits, small images of his face, were good. He had a fine nose, did Mr Gauguin. Still, his art made less an impression on me than did his story, or what bits I got of it last night. I keep trying to recall Gauguin's paintings but instead I keep seeing Gauguin, working at a canvas. This is my own fault.

On the whole, I come away from my visit with the impression of a guy who got obsessed with something, with a style, a way of life—something he saw that, I don’t think, he ever really managed to capture in his art—and who tried to bring that whatever it was to Europe, and he failed. He tried to give (well, to sell) Western Culture something that Western Culture didn’t want and so in the end he turned his back on Europe, sailed back to the South Pacific, built a house and died, a failure. I don’t know enough about too many topics to say what place Paul Gauguin has in regard to Western Art, to Polynesia, to history. I can’t say he did the inhabitants of the Marquesas Islands any good. I can’t say he harmed them, either. I’m pretty sure that he misunderstood them. I’m pretty sure that whatever he saw in them that he failed to capture in his own art was something that he imagined was there, something he’d generated out of his own desires, something that maybe nobody else felt. Or maybe that nobody else wanted to feel just then. Impossible to say, really. I don’t know the guy at all.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Weakness for Classic Mysteries

So I have a weakness for "golden age" detective stories. I like Poe and Doyle and Chesterton and I especially like Agatha Christie (admittedly I think the middles of Christie's books tend to be shapeless and messy, but I like her prose and she always has amusing and interesting observations about human nature). So fond am I of classic detective stories that I wrote a sort of one of my own, though I couldn't help but give mine a postmodernist slant and I'm told that it's not publishable.

But this little post is not about me, no matter what you may think. No, this is about our friend Alexandra MacKenzie, whose classic mystery novel Seattle Sleuth has just been published. Yesterday Mighty Reader and I finally managed to get to the Secret Garden bookstore where two copies of Alex' book have been waiting for us for quite some time. So now here we are, with two copies of a detective novel. Mighty Reader suggests that she and I do a read-along. We're both currently reading William Goldman's The Princess Bride (which differs significantly from the film and is quite a fine read) which will go quickly so MR will likely have her way on this and Seattle Sleuth will likely be the book I (we) read next. I am working hard to keep up with Mighty Reader; she reads much more quickly than I do.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

"A Sentimental Journey" by Laurence Sterne

The book ends in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a dirty joke that has a long setup. This is, of course, classic Sterne behavior.

Oh, maybe I should say more about SJ than how it ends. Did that count as a spoiler? Gosh, I hope not.

A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy is a novella written by Laurence Sterne, author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Sterne wrote it late in life, when he was not only a famous author, but also dying of consumption. It is based on an actual couple of trips he made to the Continent in the 1760s, and some of the characters in the novel are based on real people Sterne met or simply disliked enough to satirize. It's more-or-less a picaresque tale, the first-person narrative of Mr Yorick (the Anglican minister character from Tristram Shandy) as he travels from Calais to Turin. We never learn the reason behind Yorick's precipitous flight across the Channel which begins the journey, nor is there a purpose to the travels through France and Italy beyond Yorick's search for sentimental (that is, emotional) experiences. What you learn, mostly, is how an English cleric observes how French women respond to the polite wooing of English clerics, for Yorick flatters and woos nearly every woman he meets in France, all the while reassuring us that his love for Eliza--whom he leaves behind in England--is a pure and undying love.

Journey has the same brisk pace as Shandy, the same digressive style, the same sorts of "Hamlet" references and the same bawdy humor. It's not the experiment in form that Shandy was, and the narrative follows a fairly linear path though Sterne feels free to interrupt Yorick's peregrinations once or twice to give us snatches from other stories. Neither these interrupting tales nor Yorick's narrative go anywhere, in terms of dramatic arc. There is no conflict to be resolved and no answers are supplied to the questions which arise concerning Yorick's doings. We get a lot of beginnings, some middle bits, and no endings whatsoever. I am put in mind of Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler, where apparently (I have only read about that book, I haven't read it so this is some doubtful scholarship you now witness) the narrative keeps starting over and never concludes. That Sterne, he was a man ahead of his time.

Have I added any value to my original two-sentence post? No? Excellent.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Tolstoy Versus Tolstoy Versus Chekhov

This weekend I read a book of Tolstoy short stories. The two longest (and best known) stories in the book were "The Death of Ivan Ilytch" and "The Kreutzer Sonata." I'd never read either of these stories before, despite them both being pretty much staples of 19th-century Russian literature. Why did I read them? Because my pal Davin Malasarn hinted very strongly that now was a good time to read some Tolstoy stories so we could talk about them. So if Malasarn doesn't engage me in a conversation about Tolstoy, I will be forced to fly to California and demand an explanation.

"Ivan Ilytch" is a superior story to "Kreutzer." The latter's midsection is a very long and repetitive first-person rant about the rights of women and the sexual urges of men being the thing that restricts those rights. Whether these claims are true or not is beside the point; Tolstoy was not, in those 20 or so pages of ranting, telling a story. He was lecturing the audience, and one thing I hate is moralistic fiction. It's fine for fiction to be moral, and even to present a moral judgment, but that must be done by dramatizing a premise and showing an outcome. What Tolstoy does is make a long series of claims. It's lazy and annoying and boring. When he finally gets into gear and presents characters in action, "Kreutzer" gets better but it's still pretty weak overall. There are some fine moments but I can't say this story lives up to its reputation.

"The Death of Ivan Ilytch," on the other hand, is a masterpiece. Ivan Ilytch, a magistrate, has just died. His colleagues are all scrupulously observing the social forms even though they feel nothing for Ivan except relief that it was him who died and not them. With his death comes a job opening and everyone wonders how they'll be advanced when the inevitable promotions begin. That's the first ten pages or so. The remaining seventy-odd pages tell the life story of Ivan Ilytch, and it's a beautifully-told and well-observed story. I wish I'd read it a decade ago, and I'm also now moved to see about some more Tolstoy stories.

I can't help but compare Tolstoy to Chekhov. Chekhov remains my favorite, but Tolstoy may--and it hurts to say this--have been a better writer. Tolstoy had patience that Chekhov lacked. Leo was in no hurry to get to the end of his stories, and takes the time to consider from a variety of angles all the possible motivations behind his characters' actions. Chekhov is insightful and funny and wins the day on compassion for humanity, but he's a twitchy and impulsive writer and you can see where he didn't linger over either his stories or his prose the way Tolstoy did.

All of this--what little this is--is just a sort of beginning of an idea about what I think about Tolstoy. I read War and Peace a million years ago so perhaps I should read something else soon; there's that new translation of Anna Karenina on the shelf. We'll see. I have an immense "to be read" stack and Karenina is a thick book. I'm not sure how much time I want to devote to Tolstoy just now.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

I knew his type and was not surprised

I'm reading short novels right now as a stopgap measure until Mighty Reader finishes her Beverly Nichols so we can do our William Goldman readalong. Won't that be fun? Yes, it will. The short novel I picked up this afternoon after finishing Herman Melville's novella Benito Cereno (Spoiler: it's a slave uprising on the boat, and Melville telegraphs that punch from about the second paragraph; I can't believe this lethargic novella was written after such great works as Moby-Dick and Bartleby the Scrivener. It's just not very good.) is John Hawkes' Death, Sleep & the Traveler.

I hadn't heard of Hawkes before early this week, when an old band mate of mine quoted him at me. "Sounds like a pompous ass, one of those postmodern writers who have no technique so they try instead to be original," I thought. So I followed my curiosity and found one of Hawkes' books and now I'm reading it.

The writer I'm most reminded of is Nabokov. Hawkes doesn't have Nabokov's playful and intricate command of form; he's not building a puzzle box even though the narrative is fractured and told out of turn. You can piece together the story fairly easily, actually. But what Hawkes does have is the tone of Nabokov's first-person narratives. Here, the protagonist (a Dutchman named Allert Vanderveenan) is on a cruise ship, having lunch. His wife has sent him off on this cruise alone while she stays home and has an affair with their friend Peter. Allert knows about this affair; he and Peter and Ursula have had a menage a trois going for some time. The protagonist does not want to be on the boat. He doesn't want to be on vacation, and he doesn't want to have to find his way socially among a ship full of strangers:

The ship veered slightly, the sun flashed, two black-jacketed men began setting before us the low flat silver tureens filled with the tepid consomme and green garnishes and puckering chunks of lemon. I admitted to myself that the soup deserved some sort of public comment.

"This consomme," I said quietly, "has been siphoned from the backs of lumbering tortoises whose pathetic shells have been drilled for the tubes."

The silence, the singing of the crystal, the plash of water filling the goblets, the bent heads, the sun on the naked shoulders of the girl who was wearing pants and a halter, all this told me that I should not have spoken, should not have revealed in hyperbole my loneliness, my distaste for travel, my ambiguous feelings about the girl.

Later, a murder (possibly committed by our hero)! And a trial! And Ursula leaves Allert because he is Dutch, and she finds the Dutch to be dull.

"Yes, Allert," she said, "I am going to find somebody very different from you. An African, perhaps, or a moody Greek."

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Therefore am I still a lover of the meadows and the woods

I continue to have my ugly way with the Norton Anthology of Poetry, Third Edition (Shorter), and have reached William Wordsworth. He's pretty swell, though his shorter rhymy efforts don't do much for me. You might know him from the old "I wandered lonely as a cloud" poem (which can be seen as light and fluffy and unsophisticated because it's about a field of daffodils, but if you read it without irony it's quite fine).

"Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey" is fabulous. Wordsworth returns to the landscape of his youth, realizing that although he no longer sees it as a great playground for his adolescent energies and imagination, he now sees it as a thing of beauty that doesn't need his presence to be awe inspiring, that the place has imprinted itself upon his memory and his self and that the value of nature is not what we can do with it, but what--maybe--it can do to us if we let it. The whole thing's gorgeous and I'd quote all of it if anyone was reading this blog. As it is, I'll just snip and paste the section I liked best when I was reading last night. Here are the middle 50 or so lines:

And so I dare to hope
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was, when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led; more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by,)
To me was all in all.—I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite: a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, or any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed, for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompence. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

The still, sad music of humanity is good stuff. So's the whole more like a man flying from something that he dreads, than one who sought the thing he loved observation. I think I'm going to like the 19th-century poets. I'm already more comfortable with the language, even though Wordsworth, at least, seems to somehow skip backwards to Shakespeare. For the feel of the thing, anyway, for the sustained development of ideas like you can find in Shakespeare's longer soliloquies, rather than the repetitive accumulation of brief images (like stacks of boxes, maybe) those Baroque fellows were pushing. Yes, I know, I'm limited by my limits and when the only tool you have is a hammer, etc. Still. I'm working on it, amn't I? My hammer is the metaphor, so at least I've got that in common with poets, yes? Hard to say.