Tuesday, July 31, 2012

This is a Writing Blog, Isn't It?

At one point, this blog was a place where I wrote about writing. Lately I seem to have been writing mostly about reading. That's not a problem, not for me, but sometimes I still write. Most of the time, in fact.

I have been inspired by my naive misreading of W.G. Sebald's novelish book The Emigrants to start a new writing project, which I assume will be a short-term project because I bought a very small notebook in which to write and when I've come to the end of those 80 small pages, I intend to move on to some other project. The work is my attempt to write down the earliest memories I can come up with, and to write down my thoughts about those memories. I actually have been thinking about childhood memories (in a sort of abstract way) for about two years, since I first got the idea for the planned Antarctica book (wherein one of the characters is trying to remember details from his childhood but can't). The novel I just finished drafting, Go Home, Miss America, has some passages about childhood memory, too. And I have been worrying for about a year now that I can remember almost nothing of my own childhood, and that the memories I have of my young adulthood are both vague and shifting. I could worry about incipient dementia, but the truth is that I've always had a really poor memory and I know that when people ask me about my past, what I report is less the facts than a spontaneous narrative built around how I now feel about what I think happened in my past. So I'm a crappy witness. It takes me three or four attempts to sort out what I actually remember from what I think I remember. Though I can't vouch for the veracity of the final version, either.

What's this got to do with Sebald's book? Not much, as far as I can tell. What's this got to do with the art of memoir? No idea. I don't read memoir. I think this writing I'm doing now might actually be connected with an upcoming project of mine, but I don't like to say how it's connected. We'll just see what we see.

One thing I might mention about The Emigrants is that Mr Sebald was more clever than I am. His book is, apparently, too subtle for me. Most of Nabokov's actual meaning is lost on me, too. I have of course no way of knowing how much I'm missing when I read (or misread) a book. More than I'd like to admit, I'm sure. I'm bright enough to know when something is passing over my head. I don't know how bright that makes me. Not bright enough for some books, though. But I've at least been able to cash in (at least theoretically) on the particular sadness of those who are aware that there is a world of intellectual brilliance that will be forever tantalizingly out of reach, torturing them with their shortfall: the protagonist of my novel The Astrologer is just such a fellow. So what's the line between fiction and memoir again?

Monday, July 30, 2012

Emigration (Illustrated)

I am coming to the end of W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants, which is a sort of novel made up of four narratives that tell the life stories of four Jewish emigrants who left Germany (and maybe Austria, too) to escape the Nazi regime. Some of them ended up in America, some in England though The Emigrants travels over a large swath of the globe to follow the diaspora. Sebald includes pictures in the book, alleged photos of the characters, bits of their property, photos of where they lived, etc. The images are, I imagine, attempts to increase the verisimilitude of the fictional biographies. I'm just going to admit that for me, the pictures added nothing to the experience.

Over the course of the four biographies we also get the story, in bits and pieces, of the narrator's own life and we're shown how his emigration from the Continent mirrors the experiences of his predecessors. The primary forces in the emigrant experience being a sense of historical disconnection and a growing feeling of despair. Little by little, the air escapes from the narrative and even while we're reading descriptions of beautiful mountain landscapes the book becomes ever more claustrophobic and hopeless.

Which, maybe, is the point Sebald was trying to make: that the experience of Jewish emigrants from Germany during the rise of National Socialism is a form of death, a separation--or perhaps an amputation is better--from not only the basic idea of "home" but from a sense of belonging to reality itself. The images of the characters accumulate and overlap and begin to build a sort of picture (the final story in the book revolves around a painter who builds up pigment on the canvas and then scrapes it off and then adds more paint, layering residue while amassing a mound of paint chips in the center of his studio; this is all a vivid metaphor for what Sebald seems to be doing with the novel) that remains unfocused and incomplete, possibly because the emigrant experience renders one incomplete.

It's interesting reading this book on the heels of Nabokov's Pnin, also a book about emigrants and separation from one's "home" culture. Nabokov himself, as it happens, makes recurring cameo appearances in The Emigrants in his guise as butterfly collector.

So this is an interesting book and no mistaking, and a good deal of the last half of it seems to be about writing (or the act of creating art, maybe) as much as it's about identity, and how (maybe) the act of creation is put into a tailspin when the creator's identity is itself in question. As I say: maybe. I don't know. I really am unsure what this book thinks it is. Is it a commentary on Nabokov? Surely it is, at least in part, Nabokov being probably the most famous 20th-century novelist to live as an emigre after having fled a repressive regime. But what's the comment? I don't know. Does the famous emigre author with a butterfly net represent the quest to capture something? That seems a bit hamfisted as a metaphor, so I just don't know.

I also regret that the prose (at least in this translation) retains the same tone for the length of the narrative and after a while the unchanging manner of telling the story began to put me to sleep. I've had some rough stretches where I really had to work to keep my attention on the page. Sebald doesn't vary his speech over the 200-odd pages of The Emigrants. It's lovely speech, but after a while the sameness of his manner began to turn the prose into an invisible substance I could no longer see. So while this is an intriguing narrative (I hesitate to call it a novel), I can't go so far as to join the chorus proclaiming it a masterpiece. I have the feeling that this is going to be one of those books that becomes more important to me as time passes, whose influence I feel over time, long after I've finished reading. We'll see. For now, I admit that I just don't get this book. Is that what I've been trying to say all this time? Yes: I just don't get this book.

Meanwhile, Mighty Reader has given me her final comments on the soon-to-be-edited-by-the-publisher novel The Astrologer. She is a very helpful reader and explained to me how my protagonist's timeline actually works. I am awful with timelines and even thinking about it now gives me a sort of fuzzy headache. But Mighty Reader is able to approach my novels with the eye of a non-fiction editor (as well as with the eyes of a smart fiction reader) so she can spot the continuity errors I've introduced. I do however invoke my authorial veto power and will be leaving the Achilles episode in the final chapter. Because there can never be too many references to the classics of antiquity.

Friday, July 27, 2012

likely reduces my potential readership

The ending of Nabokov's Pnin, while satisfying to me, probably would baffle many readers. Or some readers, anyway. The narrative shifts focus away from Pnin, the alleged protagonist, to the narrator, another Russian emigre named Vladimir (the implication is strongly made that it's Vladimir Nabokov, of course, and how tricky of the narrator to slip in the name Sirin among a list of Russian expatriate writers). Pnin has lost his post at Waindell College and his old acquaintance Vladimir is being brought in to head the Russian Studies division. Pnin feels betrayed, though none of his courses have ever been popular and the head of the German Language department has carried Pnin for years. Still, Pnin fails to understand the fiscal politics and all he knows is that he's being kicked out into the cold, just when he believes that he can finally, after having been rootless for many decades, settle down. He had planned to buy the tidy brick house he was renting. Alas, we last see Pnin and all his worldly goods crammed into a small older-model car, speeding down the highway as he leaves Waindell College behind. Vladimir has offered to hire Pnin as his assistant, but Pnin refuses the offer.

The last couple of chapters are spent outlining a couple of ideas: how we might think that a shared experience binds us to others and makes them familiars even though that is not necessarily the case (Vladimir recounts vivid memories of his Pninian encounters over the decades, and Pnin denies the veracity of these memories); how reducing others to a stereotype causes us to turn our perceptions of their every act into foolishness (Vladimir is treated to a several-hours-long impression of Pnin by another faculty member, wherein facts are distorted in order to make Pnin look more foolish than he really is; we know that Pnin is no idiot, that he has a sophisticated intellect and he's dazzled us by now with his deep understanding of the structure of Anna Karenina); the thinly-veiled despair and anger of Nabokov (the author, not the fictional Vladimir) at how a generation of Russian intellectuals washed up on the shores of America and were essentially ignored by the American intellectual culture, many of the Russians finding their way into academia where they were treated as curiosities and second-class minds who were all more or less interchangeable. So this is a book of great longing, a story of an entire class of people who migrate forever in foreign lands, their own culture dissolving and marginalized and forgotten, a private population united more by having been expelled from the motherland than by fellow-feeling and shared ideas (do all the Russian emigres cling to each other and grow faster in friendship? No, they do not). It's a complex little book, as I say. Nothing is resolved. Nothing can be resolved. Pnin goes on, into the hopeful morning, and while his particular tale is one of much sadness, Nabokov has not written a tragedy. Or, rather, he has not given us a tragic end to a tragic tale. The story slows, the narrative turns crystalline and still, we're shown a comic tableau and then it's over.

Pnin does not operate like any other novel. It has its own form, its own concerns, its own ideas of what truths need to be shown. It is not the transformative journey of the hero; it is not the five-act Shakespearean tragedy; it is not the comic romance; it is Pnin. I have begun to think that the structures of Nabokov's novels have more in common with the structures of Modernist poems than with the traditional inherited structures of Western literary novels. That inkling of an idea interests me a great deal. A lot of novelists are trying to recreate those inherited ideas of literature, and certainly I've done that in my own work, but lately I find myself moving away from that inheritance, or at least trying to move away from that inheritance. I don't make the argument that it is in any way incumbent upon writers to seek the New, to reject the Old; that's kid stuff and I've got no time for that. What I do think is that there are interesting ways to build narratives, that novels can do more than retell cliche stories in cliche ways and that we can do more than just dream up ways of dressing old tropes in new hats and making them dance in front of brightly-painted new sets. What those "interesting ways" are is vague; all I know is that on some level I have a drive to be honest (whatever I mean by that) in my work, and that particular honesty requires a purging of cliches and stereotypes from my writing. Which, you know, likely reduces my potential readership. Thank Jupiter I don't write for money.

I'm reading Sebald's The Emigrants now. It's interesting and I like the prose. Very very long paragraphs. I don't see that the photographs add anything to the narrative, though. They seem gimmicky. But I like the writing.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Pnin by Any Other Name

I'm past the halfway point of Nabokov's short novel Pnin, and I pause to be dazzled by the growing complexity of so abbreviated a narrative. Just what's this book about, anyway? At this point, I'm not sure (though one must always be careful with Nabokov). Things that have been brought up so far include expatriate Russians (who are shown as absurd when viewed by their new American friends but also sometimes brilliant and sympathetic when viewed from their own perspective but also sometimes crass and selfish when viewed from any perspective and Nabokov is careful to make it clear that not all expat Russians hold the same values and/or political leanings), Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Sophocles' "Theban" plays, Jungian and Freudian psychologies, college politics, art teachers, parenthood, the role of children, perceptions of others and selves, chess, variability of texts from different translators, and God knows what else. Love, of course. Nabokov is always writing about love. In about 110 pages so far. Pnin is driving an old car out into the country to visit another Russian emigre right now. Pnin is not a good driver, despite what he thinks.

Nabokov's narrator also keeps sliding off into emotions that have, on the surface, nothing to do with the story. A boy looks out at the rain and the narrator (the doctor friend of Pnin, if you recall) briefly invokes a distant land where love is impossible. Shades of Kinbote, almost, the way cracks appear around the edges of exposition. Great stuff, though I have no idea to what end. I won't know until I get there, I suppose.

The Shakespeare aspect of Pnin reminds me to mention that I'll get to talk about Shakespeare in my next novel, and that excites me more than it should. It turns out that during the 18th century, Shakespeare was all the rage, translated into every European language and performed constantly everywhere, splitting critical opinion right down the middle (the classicists--especially the Germans--called Shakespeare a failure, while everyone else called him a genius of brilliant originality) in much the same way critical opinion was split about the works of our Mr Haydn. So that'll be fun. I will also invoke the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and possibly some bits about pastries and rats. We'll see.

Monday, July 23, 2012

It is impossible not to love Timofey Pnin

--and it was then that Dr Trebler stopped and the hallway telephone took over.

Technically speaking, the narrator's art of integrating telephone conversations still lags far behind that of rendering dialogues conducted from room to room, or from window to window across some narrow blue alley in an ancient town with water so precious, and the misery of donkeys, and rugs for sale, and minarets, and foreigners and melons, and the vibrant morning echoes. When Joan, in her brisk long-limbed way, got to the compelling instrument before it gave up, and said hullo (eyebrows up, eyes roaming), a hollow quiet greeted her; all she could hear was the informal sound of a steady breathing; presently the breather's voice said, with a cozy foreign accent: "One moment, excuse me"--this was quite casual, and he continued to breathe and perhaps hem and hum or even sigh a little to the accompaniment of a crepitation that evoked the turning over of small pages.

"Hullo!" she repeated.

"You are," suggested the voice warily, "Mrs Fire?"

"No," said Joan, and hung up.


The ancient town, the donkeys, the vibrant morning echoes: what have they to do with this scene, a discussion of an upcoming faculty party interrupted by a phone call from a potential lodger? Nothing. And yet there they are, as the narrator (a physician) must inform the reader of his weaknesses in the art of narration. I keep forgetting what fun Nabokov is. I am reading his 1953 novel Pnin.

Also: Mighty Reader has read the first draft of Go Home, Miss America and declares it my finest first draft yet (I paraphrase). She asked if I had any major revisions in mind for the novel and I confess that I don't. I may do something more with the Catherine Lark storyline in the middle somewhere, but I don't have any specifics, just an intuition about that section. What I do plan for that MS is to ignore it for a while, maybe a couple of months. Right now I'm doing some last-minute cleanup on The Astrologer before it goes off to the publisher (soon oh soon). I'm also starting revisions on Cocke & Bull with an eye to widening the fictional world a bit; I've been doing some excellent source reading lately and I'll be expanding and rewriting scenes and adding a few new scenes as well. The main storyline will not change, though I've got new prose for the final paragraph that I'm well pleased with.

I also seem to be accumulating materials for the next novel (the Haydn book). That one, my dears, will require a lot of research because the thematic ideas I wish to work with are complex and wide-ranging. Which is author-speak for "the actual plot is pretty slim." But it'll be fun, I tell you.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Salman Rushdie's Dog Years

I am into the second half of Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children and I confess that I am feeling a growing sense of disappointment. All of Rushdie's hyperkinetic prose, his magical realism, his nonstop foreshadowing and foregrounding of metaphor are not adding up to anything particularly interesting beyond each moment. This is a novel of anecdotes and episodes that isn't going anywhere that I can see. Rushdie explains constantly as he goes along that the "midnight's children" are allegories of India, that India today plays out her historical myths unconsciously but not quite unwillingly, and the reader is battered over the head by the author's themes from the first page and this battering never lets up. So it wearies me, does this book. I keep reading because I have hopes that Rushdie is going somewhere, not just illustrating the same ideas for 600 pages, that there is some reason for all the disconnected action aside from allegorizing Indian history. Because the allegorization of history, Mr Rushdie, is not enough to carry a novel.

None of which was quite what I meant to say. What I really mean--what my primary objection seems to be--is that when Rushdie develops his stories and characters, he drops hints all along the way that Something Interesting Is Coming and when the Interesting Moment arrives, it is always small and anticlimatic. I don't think Rushdie realizes that his character and story arcs are unsatisfying. "That's it?" I find myself asking. "That's all that happens? That's your idea of a significant action, Mr Rushdie?" I harrumph too often reading this book. Build, build, build and then...so what? There is no weight to any of Rushdie's outcomes. It's all one, unchanging, with no contrast nor movement beyond the surface. Nothing means anything. None of the characters care about anything (though often they whine at high volume), including their own deaths. Maybe that's Rushdie's point, but I doubt it. It's like watching a battle to the death among circus clowns: a lot of blood and grotesque, fantastic violence, but there's no emotional investment because, you know, all the participants are clowns. I don't think, I guess, that Rushdie cares about any of the alleged humans in his book.

Last night I realized that the primary literary touchstone of Midnight's Children is Gunter Grass, particularly the Danzig trilogy, particularly Dog Years though Rushdie's protagonist/narrator is almost as annoying as Oskar Matzerath in Tin Drum but not quite. Rushdie clearly owes Grass a huge debt, though I begin to think that Rushdie was trying hard to outdo Grass. Alas, Rushdie's over-the-top pyrotechnic prose is more distracting than anything else. Midnight's Children bothers me, I just now realized, because on the whole it lacks beauty. The prose is wild and sometimes amazing but it's ugly, jarring, unbeautiful prose. It lacks poetry and poise, it never settles into any patterns and seems uncomfortable with itself and entirely self-conscious. So I don't know about this book. I will finish reading it because there are some interesting things going on, but I will wish it was about 200 pages shorter and I don't see myself reading anything else by Rushdie for quite some time. Yes, I know: Booker of Bookers and all of that. But still and all.

After this, I'm going to read some Nabokov and then another Shakespeare play. Then, I think, it will be Sebald and then Chekhov again and then, like as not, another assault on Brothers Karamazov.

Friday, July 13, 2012

That’ll be $45, please.

I find that while I am officially not writing, I am very busy indeed with writing projects. This is why I will not live to be a very old man. I crave time in which to relax and then I fill that time with work. And then I get cranky because I’m always tired. Someone, I’m sure, working at a pharmaceuticals company, has a solution for all of this. But I resist leisure and luxuriate instead in the hum of ideas. And, apparently, I luxuriate in this long and clearly pointless introductory paragraph, which I will abandon now.

Salman Rushdie continues to amuse and entertain with his novel Midnight’s Children. I only wish that he was dazzling me more. There was a passage I read a couple of days ago, on page 140 of the Everyman edition, that I might quote here if I remember it tonight. It was a wonderful bit about the birth of the Indian state, possibly the best prose so far in the novel (I’m about 200 pages in, so not quite at the halfway point yet). There are great things in this book, and of course Rushdie has quite the imagination and is admirably brave in the way he grafts absurdities and improbabilities into his narrative, but he has mannerisms that wear on me and I do wish he’d just fucking settle down some. I know this novel is almost 20 years old at this point, and The Satanic Verses was less frenzied and possibly his recent books are still less overcome with desperate postmodernist energy, and maybe I’ll have a look and find out. But my reading of Midnight’s Children is going along about the way my reading of The Satanic Verses went: I admire the book, I really like parts of it, but I am not becoming a fan of Mr Rushdie nor does this book make me want to read all his other books. Madame Bovary made me want to read more Flaubert. Hadji Murad made me want to read Anna Karenina. Anything by Chekhov makes me want to read anything else by Chekhov. You see what I mean, I hope. Books by Rushdie are interesting but they don’t give me an appetite for more Rushdie.

Though perhaps Rushdie’s modernist/postmodernist games in Midnight’s Children are making me want to be more experimental in my own next book, currently working-titled Devotion but likely that’s just a placeholder. Some of you might know it as “the Haydn book.” Anyway, I’ve written out a five-movement one-page outline of the plot, and I’ve begun to break down each movement (here I am borrowing terminology and ideas from symphonic writing, but for “movement” you can read “act”) into chapters. The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, is to be in 18 chapters, each about 1,000 words long, I think. I’ve figured out who the multiple narrators will be, more or less, and which characters they’ll be presenting in their chapters. Two of the narrators are deceased at the time of the story and will speak from beyond the grave.

When starting a novel, I always am confronted by the technical element of voice. What’s the tone of the piece going to be? What’s the vocabulary going to be like? What are the literary influences on the narrative voice? That sort of thing. I don’t have (nor do I care about) what I’d consider to be my own “individual voice as a writer.” I think that idea of voice is pointless, limiting, and egotistical. What I’m interested in is the “voice of the piece,” which is to say, the best way of narrating the material, or a good way that I can manage successfully which contains hidden possibilities to be discovered as I wade through the end of the second act. So I’m making sort of sketches of the opening chapters, trying to decide what sorts of things people will talk about and how they’ll talk about those things. I will be doing a lot of reading of 18th-century letters, I believe. Which will be fun and informative even if I don’t use a lot of that material in the novel. Research is always edifying.

What else, what else? I’m reading more colonial American history right now and assembling material to put into Cocke & Bull. I’m excited by this revision, and I’m making a list of new scenes. I think the book will take on added dimensions and whatever themes are buried in the narrative (I try hard not to think about theme; it’s not my job, kids) will become richer, maybe, or at least more complex which is good. In any case, the narrative will have more facets and will possibly become more impenetrable and I like that. So I’ll be messing about with that project this summer.

The first draft of Go Home, Miss America is on its way to me from a printer, because I like to read the drafts as bound books. Next week, I think, Mighty Reader will read a copy. A week or three after that, I’ll read a copy, and then I’ll see about revisions. At some point this summer, maybe in August, The Astrologer will finally go to the publisher for editorial. No doubt I’ll have some work to do on that MS in the fall.

So lots to do, and not as much time to do it as one might like. Also, I’m still working on tango music. Last night I practiced about four tunes and I must say, they seem to be coming along nicely. I wish I was a better player, to really do the pieces justice. I’m listening to a lot of tango music these days, too. It’s all good stuff. Merely having a narrowed focus (“let’s learn a dozen tangos!”) has been good for my technique. My advice about the bow arm is that you should think only about your elbow and index finger. You should just relax the rest of your arm/hand and forget it exists.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

the perforated sheet

I'm about 100 pages into Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie's "Booker of Bookers" Prize-winning novel about the partition of India when the English abandoned the country. Though Rushdie can be too gratuitously vulgar for my tastes, I'm enjoying the book so far. I admit that I started liking it more once I realized that it is, in part at least, a modern take on Tristram Shandy. It can't be a postmodern take on TS because TS was already postmodern in 1760. Anyway, things are moving apace and the narrator continues to avoid the story of his own birth. Will Rushdie, like Sterne, manage to delay his narrator's birth for 200 pages? We'll see.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

author photos

I recently noticed that I promised my publisher that I'd have author photos to them by the end of April. The end of April was some time ago, and my publisher does not yet have the promised photos. Half of the reason for this is that I really hate having my picture taken, and the other half is that I really hate having my picture taken. It's not like my looks are going to move any units, anyway. But I have begun thinking that perhaps I should make good on the promise to my publisher and furnish some sort of digital image of my face.

My favorite photo of me is this one, taken about eight years ago:



I'm sure it's too small to be useful and I no longer seem to possess the larger-size file. One alternative to this tiny picture is the following image, taken in 1992 or thereabouts:



But is that really the image I want to stand behind? It's not exactly the picture of the sensitive fellow with above-average linguistic skills one associates with a literary novelist, is it? So how about this one:



I think it's got "William Butler Yeats in a pensive mood" written all over it. You can trust that guy to write quality books that deal with the existential questions, but maybe he looks too broody. How about this next one, that I call "The moment of inspiration"?



All well and fine, I'm sure, but not really an honest portrayal of the author. I'd feel like less of a pretentious git if people knew what I really looked like when I was working on a book, wouldn't I? So how about the "Chris Hitchens the day after" photo:



Yeah, that's more like it. But if I was going to be completely honest with my readership, supposing I ever have one, I should just give them this next picture, which I call "Mark E. Smith meets Scalzi":



Going too far, isn't it? I suppose so. There's nothing else for it, then, but to send my publishers the "creative thinking man" photo and call it a day:

Friday, July 6, 2012

starting with the goats

Unless I am very much mistaken, about twenty minutes ago I finished writing the first draft of my latest novel, Go Home, Miss America. The last chapter is very short, around 2,000 words, which puts the novel as a whole at about 81,000 words. So this is certainly not a "big" novel, but it's long enough.

How do I feel about having finished? I'm not sure. I'm not sure I have finished. All of my other books have ended with a passage that I wrote while working on the middle of the narrative, well before actually writing the last chapter, and so I always knew what I was writing toward when I closed in on the last pages. This book began as an experiment in writing into the unknown; the first couple of chapters were scratched out while I had no idea at all what I was writing about, and so now it seems that I'm ending the book the same way. I have no idea what endpoint I've been seeking, so I'm not positive that I know how to finish the narrative. The whole book is sort of one big middle, I see now. It starts in medias res and pretty much stays that way the entire time. So my "ending" is more of a long transitional passage, I think. But it's what I've got and I think it's the right ending so I'm calling it good, kids.

In a week or so Mighty Reader will get to have a look at this first draft, and then in a month or so I'll start poking at it again, but in the meanwhile, I'm going to relax and enjoy myself and read a bunch of books.

(I lie about relaxing; I'm going to do some work on the MS to Cocke & Bull but that will all be pretty easy and enjoyable work.)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

brief update

Just for my own records: I finished typing up Chapter 15 into the Word(tm) document and the wordcount for the novel stands at 78,100. So that's fine. I can run a little short on the final chapter if I want. 80K was the goal, to get this to minimum novel length during the first draft. So by this time next week I'll have finished the book. Hopefully by Wednesday next. We'll see.

And yes, I am spending my Fourth of July afternoon typing. What's that to you? Mighty Reader has mowed the yard and is now cleaning up the front rose beds, which have been rather overrun by various annuals. Later, probably, we'll grill hotdogs and drink beer. Potato salad might make an appearance. From where I sit I can see the small flag flying from our front porch stirring in the breeze. The sky is quite blue. Et cetera.

Now I'll go join Mighty Reader in the front yard.

Monday, July 2, 2012

not in the least conscious of her prostitution

This will probably be my last post about Madame Bovary. I've not finished reading the novel but by midnight tonight I'll have done. My current opinion is that this is a marvelous book. Last week I called it "uneven" and perhaps that's still true, but when I reached about the halfway point in the narrative all of my possible objections against the novel fell away and I've been reading as much of it as I've got time to read, hurtling through the story. I have not suddenly fallen in love with Emma Bovary--oh, wait: maybe I have. Maybe I've fallen in love with all of the characters, thoroughly dislikeable as they are. Of course I mean "love" here as I define it when talking about my own love for my own characters in my own novels: I accept them the way they are and don't judge them, and assume that each of them has a sense of their own nobility or something like that. Which is all probably by the way. I'll start over again.

I'm almost finished reading Madame Bovary, the (in)famous 19th-century novel by Gustave Flaubert, whose influence on subsequent generations of novelists is blah blah blah et cetera. Go look him up. Gustave and I had a rocky relationship for the first half of the book but now I'm just sitting back and enjoying the read, for it is quite excellent. Mighty Reader and I had an interesting discussion on Saturday (or was it Friday? I forget) about the need for a "sympathetic" character. I argued for "compelling" over "sympathetic." Though I will admit that I find myself thinking Oh, Emma, no rather than That bitch is bad business, so perhaps my sympathies go out to Mme Bovary (and Dr Bovary as well) more than I realize. Anyway, I find this novel to be ever so fine and I don't precisely know why I had such difficulties with it earlier except, perhaps, that I was demanding that Flaubert somehow prove himself and I spent a lot of time and effort picking nits with the book. “Flaubert’s not so great, look at blah blah blah, etc.” You know: kid stuff. Whatevs.

Possibly when I have finished the book I’ll have another look at it and confirm or refute my suspicion that the overall structure is that of a five-act Shakespearean tragedy. It’s certainly a tragedy, and Emma certainly has a fatal flaw that she can’t overcome. So we’ll see.

One of the constants in my reading of the great books of literature is that I tend to approach these books warily, expecting them to be more difficult (whatever I mean by that) than they are, expecting them to be better than they are, and also expecting them to be not as good as they are. By and large, these books turn out to be nothing more or less than what they’re advertised as: really good books that reward reading. Few of them make me redefine my expectations of what a novel should be. At the same time, all of them make me redefine my expectations of what a novel could be. So Madame Bovary was certainly worth reading, if you’re me. Probably if you’re you, too.

My next book, if I don’t go off course and read a Shakespeare play (which I might do), is Salman Rushdie’s much lauded Midnight’s Children. Mr Rushdie and I don’t much get along. I loved Haroun and the Sea of Stories because, you know, I’m a sucker for fairy tales, but I abandoned The Ground Beneath Her Feet after the first chapter because I hated almost every word of it for a variety of Damned Good Reasons. But two or three or four years ago I read The Satanic Verses and, while I have issues with a certain breed of English Modernist formalism that tends to result in fractured narratives that fail to integrate into a coherent whole (Byatt is also guilty of this though I usually forgive her), I mostly enjoyed The Satanic Verses. Midnight’s Children is widely claimed to be Rushdie’s finest novel, so I’m giving it a go, possibly starting tomorrow though likely I’ll wait until Thursday to start in. As I say far too often here, we’ll see.