Friday, November 30, 2012

He was Austrian, you know

Yesterday I survived a Trifecta of Mad Viennese Men: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler. Yes, I know: Mahler was born in Bohemia, but he made his fame and his money in Vienna, and I think he was also infected with the Viennese Lunacy.

Wittgenstein, though. I've read enough of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to start work on Chapter 11 of my novel-in-progress, though even if my fictional characters will have left off reading at about section 5.6, I continued onward through the tract because, you know, I'm more curious than my fictional characters. Section 5, toward the end, and Section 6 deal with real philosophical issues (Wittgenstein would of course deny that these are proper discussion topics for philosophers--indeed he does deny this earlier in the Tractatus--but here they are anyway) like the knowableness of God, solipsism and the existence of the soul. For the record: we can't know if God exists though He might, solipsism is the only true experience of the world, and the soul does not exist. But then Ludwig goes further, implying (if I understand him correctly) that we have no proof that anything exists beyond our own solipsistic worlds, and even if it does, none of it matters because the only true thing is language, and the only true language is bounded by philosophical logic, and all philosophical logical statements are tautologies saying nothing, so the only true thing is nothing, and logic--which is reality--will go on expressing itself whether we are here to see it or not, and anyway we don't matter to the equation, and to sum up, mankind is superfluous. Which is, I think, where Wittgenstein is going all along, that mankind is unnecessary. That seems to reinforce what I know about his sad, lonely and misunderstood life. The whole of the Tractatus seems to be an argument in favor of nullity, and a scary argument at that once you get to the end. "Whereof I cannot speak, thereof I must be silent" is not a warning against careless thinking and speech, it's a call to death. A harrowing, solitary death. Wittgenstein is therefore the philosopher of bleakness, of nothingness. Everything is nothing, all is pointless, best to just lie down and die.

Alban Berg, on the other hand. I've long been a fan of his music, from the early songs for mezzo-soprano and piano through the symphonic works to Lulu and Wozzeck. It's all great stuff. Last night the Seattle Symphony played Berg's Violin Concerto, with Veronika Eberle as the soloist. Ms Eberle has some phenomenal chops, Ludovic Morlot (the Seattle Symphony's new conductor) had a great grasp of the structure of the piece, and it was all just gorgeous and spiky and cool, the Bach chorale section sounding like a church organ, the final ambiguous chord floating in the air for a long time, as if it had disconnected itself from the orchestra and had come alive in the room. Berg was thought to be crazy, being a disciple of Arnold Schoenberg and a founding member of the Second Viennese School (that's serialism and atonality), a writer of non-music etc etc. Not a crazy man, but labeled as such.

Gustav Mahler, as I note above, was born in Bohemia, in what's now the Czech Republic. But I still claim he had the Austrian Crazy in his head, and one proof of it is his Symphony Number 4 in G Major. It's an hour long, but it's only got 17 minutes worth of music in it. The rest of the time is taken up with repetitions of that 17 minutes of music. This would be fine if the 17 minutes was good music, but it's not. Mahler was a composer of effects and textures, but not of, say, melodies or variations on themes (or even themes). There's a great deal happening on the stage at all times, but not much of it's particularly interesting. I get the feeling that Gustav wanted to write something big and significant and Wagnerian, but he just didn't have the ideas, and so he'd drag things into the mix out of desperation. The Symphony Number 4 has woodwind players doubling on several instruments because, you know, it's not enough to have oboes; you have to have the oboes trade off and sometimes play clarinet, too, or whatever. The principal violinist trades back and forth between his normally-tuned violin and a fiddle scordatura during the third movement. Why? Because Mahler says so, that's why. The scordatura passages are repetitive (of course) and not particularly engaging. The first three or four minutes of the slow movement are restful but then the movement drags on and on and goes nowhere at all and then the orchestra runs into one of those pesky da capos and the whole movement starts again. I put my head onto Mighty Reader's shoulder at this point and prayed for sleep, which did not come. The finale is Mahler’s setting of Das himmlische Leben, which means that in the pause between movements, soprano Donatienne Michel-Dansac walked onstage and placed herself beside the podium. She sings nicely enough but it was about when the hymn slowed down and began again, and Michel-Dansac fell into her half-crouched singing posture, that I suddenly felt as if I was sitting in a remote village meeting hall watching an amateur production of an operetta written by the eccentric church choirmaster and performed with baffled enthusiasm for a mystified audience of townsfolk. Yes, I thought, this is the music of a lunatic, of a man who was in pursuit of a vision but was denied that vision and filled reams of manuscript paper anyway, hoping against hope that somewhere in all of this noise he'd shake some real art out onto the face of the world. A crazy man, an eccentric mad scientist building machines full of flashing light and whirling appliances that achieved no practical purpose and had no off switch. Yes, that's Mahler, I thought. At that point, late in the performance, I began to enjoy it. The silence at the end of the symphony, as the last chimes of Mahler's sleigh bells died away, was held by orchestra and audience for a long, long time.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The thought is the significant proposition

I have made it to section 4 ("The thought is the significant proposition") of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, where he might be revealing that the first 3 sections are not actually about language as we use it, but rather describe a perfect logical language that would make philosophical speech possible. Maybe. One problem with Mr Wittgenstein's tract is that he doesn't actually tell you what he's attempting to describe. Nor does he give examples of any of his proposed linguistic elements. Possibly he himself was never sure; there's a lot of nomenclature wrapping around itself in his system, and Wittgenstein never differentiates between the levels. But a fact is a symbol is an object, yes? Why do we need three (and, actually, far more than three) names for the same thing? Is it a function of function within the proposed system? No, I have no idea. Again, some examples would help but apparently Wittgenstein agonized in his notebooks about how to map his proposed logical language to the real world. He could not decide, for example, if his own watch was a "simple object" or not. And whereof he could not speak, thereof he remained silent.

Anyway, once Wittgenstein starts to talk about how actual ("colloquial") language is used, a lot of my objections to his ideas disappear and he seems to be on firmer ground. Or I am, so his writing makes more sense to me. It's impossible for me to know how much of Wittgenstein's writings are solid thinking versus provisional gibberish, because it's impossible for me to recognize the limits of my own mental abilities. In other words, maybe I object to his proposals because I'm not smart enough to understand them but I don't know I'm not smart enough. Certainly that's a common human experience. Certainly I am not the smartest person in whatever room I enter. So here I am in a room with Ludwig Wittgenstein, trying to understand him, unsure which of us knows what we think we're talking about.

My fascination with Ludwig continues to increase, though. He's more interesting than his system is, at least to me. I am sort of attempting to reverse-engineer Wittgenstein from his Tractatus, envisioning a prickly antisocial guy who was forever frustrated by the provisional nature of knowledge and language, who attempted to create a language in which only truth-statements could be made, or at least a language in which one could see whether a statement was true or false. Ludwig may have been, that is, attempting to map human speech to typographical number theory, in which you can make false (either deliberately misleading or mistaken) statements, but it's apparent when you do if you understand the typography well. Wittgenstein was destined, if indeed this was his intent, to fail, for all of the reasons I've already listed in my previous post about his little book.

Still, once Wittgenstein moves away from his proposed language to actual language and begins listing what he thinks philosophical discourse should be (and draws proposed limits to that discourse), he's entertaining and clear enough. So I continue to put off writing my novel's Chapter 11 and keep reading Mr Wittgenstein.

Also, I'm starting to think about a story involving a cranky misunderstood Austrian philosopher like Ludwig Wittgenstein, and a successful English translator like Constance Garnett. That could be interesting. I could throw in a Sylvia Beach character for good measure. That could be very interesting indeed.

Penguins: Natural History and Conservation

I've been waiting for Dee Boersma to write a book about penguins, and she finally has.


"Beautifully illustrated with full-color photographs of each species in their natural habitat and detailed charts and graphs, Penguins will be an invaluable tool for researchers, conservation groups, and policy makers. It will also enchant anyone interested in the lives or the plight of these fascinating animals."

It looks like a fabulous book. It probably doesn't, alas, include the anecdote Dr Boersma once told me about the guy who was hit so hard in the chest by an emperor penguin's flipper that it almost busted his ribs.




Tuesday, November 27, 2012

All propositions of our colloquial language are actually, just as they are, logically completely in order

I’ve been reading Pascal’s Pensees and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, to prepare for a scene I’m going to write in my work-in-progress novella Mona in the Desert. The idea was that I’d just skim through this stuff (I read Pascal long ago and had a sort of vague idea of Wittgenstein’s “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we ought be silent” statement regarding mysticism) and basically pull out lines to put into my characters’ mouths and I'd build a meaningful dialogue and scene around it all. There would be quoted stuff about language and truth and then I’d work my way around to Pascal’s Wager, which will turn out to be important to the story later on. The usual sort of shallow research, in other words. The problem I’m having is that Pascal and Wittgenstein were fascinating guys and I’ve been losing myself (and spending a great deal of time) actually reading the boys, not just trolling for bits of dialogue I can refashion in my own narrative’s image. The end result (or the middle result, I guess, as I’m not done with my reading yet) is that I’ve been having a sort of argument with Wittgenstein the last few days. Last night I took Mighty Reader’s suggestion to read the entry on Wittgenstein in her Encyclopedia of Philosophy (eight volumes! fifty pounds! ten-thousand pages!) to get an overview of the Tractatus before I gave myself a bigger headache attempting to make sense of it on my own.

The EoP entry begins with a biography of Wittgenstein, and gosh was he crazy. Filthy rich, educated in math and engineering but lacking—it seems—a grounding in classical literature (remember that), a good clarinet player and very good sight reader, philanthropist (he made anonymous cash gifts to Rainer Maria Rilke and Georg Trakl), school teacher (I pity his young charges in rural Austria, suffering under the humorless and earnest tutelage of Ludwig) and eventually professor of philosophy at Cambridge. When, in 1951, he was diagnosed with cancer, he apparently said, “Good!” because he was ready to die, apparently having been obsessed with his own death since he could first form the idea. Fun guy at parties, I’m thinking.

Anyway, I have issues with both Pascal (his arguments supporting the existence of God—essentially Thomist arguments that point to mankind and declare God necessary a priori—are weak) and Wittgenstein (he seems to say that language is an expression of the world, whereas it seems pretty clear to me that language is an expression of thought; meaning is not contained in sentences and propositions, that is, but is found in the mind of the reader/speaker/listener. Facts are interpretations made in the mind, not empirical realities expressed in sentences), but at the same time I’m aware that I’m not as bright as I’d like to think I am, and likely either I misunderstand these guys or they are misunderstood by me. But none of that matters, because my characters’ understanding of Pascal and Wittgenstein needs to be no better than mine, and their philosophical discussion is actually a metaphor for something else they won’t put into words directly. Which is, you see, a big joke about Wittgenstein, whose philosophy can’t—I think—account for metaphor (or humor, for that matter). I hope to write the damned scene by the end of this week, and get on with the end of the book. My next project will be nothing like this one.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Of the Unexampled and Unheard-Of Adventure Which Was Achieved by the Valiant Don Quixote of La Mancha With Less Peril Than Any Ever Achieved by Any Famous Knight In the World

I am reading Don Quixote, the best-selling 1605 novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavadra. Don Quixote is the national epic of Spain, considered by many to be the first proper modern novel, a parody of the epic tales of knights errant and a picaresque novel of Spain on the verge of the Renaissance. While reading Qixote I can't help but think of Jose Maria de Eca de Quieros' novel The Illustrious House of Ramires, Benito Perez Galdos' Fortunata and Jacinta and of course Apuleius' The Golden Ass. Part of that has to do with subject matter, but mostly I am reminded of the comic tone of those three novels, which are all connected with the Quixote in one way or another. One also can't help but to think of Borges' many mentions of Cervantes in his own short stories. All of which is another way of saying that Don Quixote is a fine book and I'm enjoying the heck out of it. I'm about 200 pages in (I'm reading J.M. Cohen's 1950 Penguin Classics translation which tips the scales at 940-some pages) and Cervantes' joke has yet to wear thin, which is a pretty good sign.

This is a book I know through allusions in other books, and through excerpts I've read here and there over the years. I've had it on my shelf for a while now, one of those books I look at and tell myself that I'll read it later, having as I do plenty of time to catch up on the classics after I finish the last five volumes of Chekhov and read those final dozen Shakespeare plays (I've avoided the "history" plays all my life but at some point I'll get to them) and then there is all that Nabokov I haven't touched and reams of Dickens and Dostoyevsky and God knows what else. But having read Fortunata and Jacinta, I was put in the mood to finally face Senor Cervantes. I like to have a long book for the winter months (after Don Quixote I'm re-reading Ulysses and after that it's some Walter Scott and then, possibly, a re-read of Moby-Dick; some shorter novels will likely find their way into the spaces between those big books) but mostly, I guess, it was just time for me to read Don Quixote.

It's a rewarding read, and laugh-out-loud funny. A lot of the social commentary is obvious at this historical distance, and Quixote himself isn't such a charmer (one feels oneself drawn onto Sancho Panza's side as he replies, to Don Quixote's exhortation to keep a secret until after that good knight's death, that "I swear to hold my tongue about it till the end of your worship's days, and God grant I may be able to let it out tomorrow.") but the story is imaginative and swiftly-moving. The chapter where the local priest and the barber go through Quixote's library, deciding which books to burn and which to keep, is quite fine. The battle between the herds of sheep is also very good, as is the chapter describing Quixote's victory over the fulling hammers. I had no idea what a fulling hammer was (it's part of a weaving machine--an automatic loom, that is) but the incident is quite clever on Cervantes' part, with Quixote stepping out of the darkness to confront technology and finding no place for knightly action. That's a major theme of the book, nicely encapsulated in a single episode. 280 years later, Flaubert will build the whole of Madame Bovary out of just such thematically illustrative episodes.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

You take me in too dolorous a sense

On Monday, or whenever it was that I last posted, I wrote some vague stuff about action equalling character and how I was sort of making a list of* the significant actions taken by characters in the first half of my work-in-progress so that I could revisit those actions late in the narrative, this time acted out by different characters, in different times and places, to different effect. What I'm maybe getting at by this shilly-shallying with plot is (aside from a late attempt to create a structure for the narrative) to experiment with the idea that meaning in fiction is not necessarily tied strongly to plot. Or, rather, that actions themselves are not character and that Aristotle only gets it half right.

Meaning, therefore, is what was missing from Monday's post. I am playing around with meaning in my novel-in-progress. For example, in the first chapter of the book I (the narrator, that is) tell the reader about the oldest memory I believe I possess: wandering through a dark wood and coming across a brightly-lit clearing. Over the course of the novel, I give versions of this memory to several other characters, and the hope is that the reader will gain some insight into each of those characters, but that the insights will differ for each character. It is also hoped that the reader will think that perhaps certain experiences are common.

I should also come clean and admit right off that the main reason I'm playing with repetitive imagery like this is for my own amusement. It's fun, and it's a nifty intellectual challenge to see if I can reuse these actions in a way that yields satisfactory artistic results. Is it cool? Then it's a good idea.

Mighty Reader pointed out to me, when I told her that I was sort of stalled at the edge of the precipice which is the Third Act of this book, that with each book I write I hesitate at this point while seeking some difficult novelistic challenge to solve in order to keep the narrative interesting to me as a writer. Simply writing out the end of the plot is boring and I have little enthusiasm for that. So certainly this repetitive action piece is probably just to keep me from getting bored with the novel, and I'll go ahead and admit that when my readers come upon Chapter 11's philosophical argument between Pascal and Wittgenstein, their suspicion that it's only in the book because the author thought it would be a fun challenge to write will be well-founded. Also, I promise the reader such an argument in about Chapter 3. Where'd I steal this structure from? Oh, Tristram Shandy. Of course.

I assure my reader that the Pascal v Wittgenstein debate serves to further develop two of the book's major characters and the arguments being batted about will serve as stand-ins for the conflict between these two characters. Again, it looks hard to write but oh such fun when I get it all right. Sometimes I ask myself why I bother writing novels, and then I remember that it's because I get to do stuff like this.

*In truth, "casting an eye over" would be more accurate.

Monday, November 19, 2012

More reasons for this action at our more leisure shall I render you.

Somewhere in the Poetics, Aristotle reminds us that action is character. It's through watching fictional people moving through the world that the reader experiences who these fictional people are. Curiously enough, however, the specific actions taken by fictional characters within fictional narratives might not be all that important, as long as we're shown how the characters react to/interact with the world. The small acts, maybe, tell us more about someone than the grand actions occuring at major plot points where the story structure hinges. I think I'm rambling. Let's try again.

I'm closing in on the final section of my work-in-progress, Mona in the Desert. One of the conceits of this particular narrative is that certain specific actions/events are going to recur throughout the length of the narrative, in different times and places with different characters. These actions/events will have different dramatic purpose and meaning in each instance, and the characters will reveal themselves in different ways in each instance. For example, the narrator, the title character and at least two other characters will come unexpectedly upon clearings in forests, or similar settings. The two main sister characters of the story will repeat each other's speeches, separated by decades. And so on.

My intention had been to make sure I used these repeated images/actions/events in each chapter, but I seem, in the last couple of chapters, to have concentrated on just two of these motifs and I've forgotten what most of my repetitive images were supposed to be. What I'm going to do over the next couple of days is go through the first ten chapters and make a list of scenes I want to reprise during the last couple of chapters of the book. I really had no structure in mind when I began writing this thing, and so the narrative shape is a lot like balls being juggled, with some balls in the air more often than others. To my surprise a single story line has emerged as the central plot and I've been serving that story line while letting the others come and go in bits and bobs and that's not quite what I thought I'd be doing. So I'm putting the brakes on for a moment while I make something of a plan, or at least a list, of things I want to include in the narrative's last 20,000 or so words.

It might seem odd that I'm not creating the action first, or really giving much thought to how the actions will tie into the plots, but I have realized that what the actions taken by characters are is far less important than why they take those actions. This is easy in a book like Mona in the Desert, because I'm not talking about big plot-point actions like slaying a dragon or filing for a divorce or leaving home forever. I'm talking about things like stumbling across a clearing in a wood, or walking as a family across a neighborhood, or going on a field trip or the like. The more of these shared actions in this book, the better, because I want the reader to suspect that the narrator is unsure who did these things and is likewise unsure about the meaning of these anecdotes he tells. So whenever the reader says, "Hey, didn't so-and-so do this in 1963? this can't be right," I've done my job correctly. Is that a spoiler? Pretend I never said that.

Anyway, all of this seems to be a continuation of the project I began in my very first novel, way back 20 years ago, where I started playing with the idea that character actions in and of themselves are meaningless, and it's context that provides meaning. So over the years I've had lines of dialogue pass back and forth between speakers with the meaning changed depending on who speaks it, and I've had symbols appear at different times in narratives with the meaning changed depending on placement of the symbol (oh, that's just a classical use of irony, you see), and I've been doing it with character actions for a few books now, too. The actions, the plots, belong to everybody in the narrative, but the meanings belong to individual characters. Sort of. Is that another spoiler? Maybe. But you can't really spoil postmodern literature. And by the time this little book of mine sees the light of day, we'll all have forgotten about this post. Which is maybe why I'm writing it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Shots fired, downtown Madrid

Last night Mighty Reader and I finished Benito Perez Galdos’ 1887 novel Fortunata and Jacinta. We’d hoped to finish by the end of October, the readalong month, but we lost two weeks while I scrounged up a copy for Mighty Reader. Thanks, Penguin, for letting this title go out of print! I was able to find a used library copy of the University of Georgia edition. It was immense and weighed a ton. Mighty Reader read that copy; I skived off with the still-too-big-and-heavy trade paperback. This is a long book, 816 pages, and the pages are pretty long. Somewhere I read that F&J rivals War and Peace for length, making it the second longest novel I’ve ever read (after War and Peace, of course). So twice as long as Moby-Dick or The Brothers Karamazov. Blah blah blah. Anyway, we’ve finished. Mighty Reader snapped her copy shut at 11:40PM and I followed her at a minute till midnight. We haven’t had time to actually discuss the last 100 or so pages yet, but there was some brief agreement that Senior Galdos went into Dostoyevski territory at the end: madness and death and pistols and redemption and punishment and only the shade of a happy ending. This is a strangely religious novel, like much of Dostoyevski and not much at all like Dickens, to whom Galdos is frequently compared. It’s also a more knowing book than anything I’ve read by Dickens: in a later chapter (somewhere around page 650, maybe) a middle-aged character with a weak heart demands from his doctor permission to have sex if the doctor is sure the activity won’t kill him. Like I say, nothing like that in Great Expectations. An interesting and enlightening novel that I’m happy to have read.

I’ve moved on from 19th-century Spanish literature to 20th-century Portuguese literature, in the form of Jose Saramago’s novel Death With Interruptions. It’s short and briskly paced and awfully funny on many levels. My only problem, at about a third of the way through, is that the joke (in a landlocked—possibly South American—country, people have stopped dying and nobody knows what to do with all the nearly dead, the very old, the horribly injured but unable to recover or die etc people who have overfilled the hospitals and nursing homes and have been sent back to live their horrific half-lives with whatever family they have) is dangerously close to getting old. So far there are no main characters; the novel is told in the form of an archly ironic reportage. But I remain amused and reading, so we’ll see what happens.

After the Saramago, I’m going back to classic Spanish literature to read Miguel de Cervante’s epic Don Quixote, which I’ve never read in its entirety; I’ve read chapters here and there across the years but never the whole thing from start to finish. So that’s my midwinter read. After that I’ll probably retreat behind Chekhov’s back for a while again, and then I have several novels called The Astrologer to read, just because.

Meanwhile, I continue to write my way through the final 25% of my work-in-progress novel Mona In The Desert. Mona is very close to the titular desert right now. Things are happening in the background in various timelines. A boy is about to tell a story he’s made up to amuse his aunt. I’m quite pleased with the 750 or so words I wrote at lunch today. This could be a beautiful little book if I don’t fuck it up. Let’s hope I don’t, then. When this first draft is complete, I’ll pack it away and revise Go Home, Miss America. That’ll be my early 2013 project. So much to do.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Transcendental Detective, Coming Soon

Although we haven't yet signed the contract, and it's traditional not to mention these things until the ink is dry, I defy tradition to tell you that Rhemalda Publishing and I have agreed to bring out my postmodern philosophical detective novel either late in 2013 or early in 2014. I am very excited about this one. It's a fun book that I wrote to amuse myself and Mighty Reader, and it plays with the conventions of Golden Age detective fiction while still managing to be a literary novel (whatever that means, which is apparently anyone's guess). The title is probably going to be The Transcendental Detective. The detective in question is a real hoot, too. An unforgettable character and all that jazz. So I'll keep my handful of readers posted about that book as things develop. There will be, of course, no news at all for the longest time and then suddenly it will be out for sale.

Oh, here's a brief summary of The Transcendental Detective:

In September 1935 at an island resort off the Oregon coast, a violent storm has washed away not only the bridge to the mainland but also the telephone line, leaving guests and staff trapped on the island with no way to call for help. When composer George Pullman is discovered murdered in the hotel garage, vacationing French Algerian police detective Patience Quince leaves off worrying over the marriage proposal she's received from Ali ibn Mustafa al Agba, and begins to employ the methods of transcendental detection she learned in Paris: she will drink, dream and philosophize her way to unmasking Pullman's killer. Patience knows that the wrong suspect is locked in the hotel cellar and none on the island is safe, but a quixotic foreign woman who quotes Immanuel Kant from memory and keeps a loaded pistol in her purse can find it hard to gain the cooperation of suspicious Americans. Even so, Patience has promised the "shadowy man" from her transcendental dreams that she will find him and bring him to justice.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"Pieces" by Michelle Davidson Argyle, a day late

I forgot to mention yesterday that my friend Michelle Davidson Argyle has cover art for her upcoming novel Pieces. You can see it, and the book trailer, here. Michelle's writing career is going well for her, and I'm happy because she's a perfectly lovely person. We've known each other via the interwebs since 2009 and, although we've never met in person, I am still convinced of her lovely personhood. Right now she's hard at work revising another novel. A writer writes, every day.

Monday, November 5, 2012

"A waste of effort" in Kawabata's Snow Country

Snow Country, a 1937 novel by Nobel prize-winning writer Yasunari Kawabata, is typically described as "haunting," "suggestive," and "haiku-like." It's full of spare, stripped-down prose and Kawabata says very little directly, offering us the shadows and impressions of the characters' emotions, oblique statements of feeling or intention. The protagonist, a middle-aged wealthy man named Shimamura, wonders about the motivations of the mistress he has taken during brief vacations to a hot springs in the snowy Japanese mountains, but not too much, nor does he bother to ask. Komako, the geisha, doesn't ask after Shimamura's wife, family, or occupation in Tokyo except once to inquire if he's always been wealthy (he has; he inherited wealth and lives the life of an indolent dilettante, in one brilliant passage letting us know that he once was a student of classical Japanese dance but he grew frustrated with the modern dancers' attempts to keep the spirit of the dance but somehow make it new again, so Shimamura became a long-distance expert in Western ballet, without once having actually seen a ballet performed).

We don't know anything about Shimamura's wife, except that Shimamura feels no guilt about leaving her behind every once in a while to go off and spend a week with a geisha. Shimamura feels no guilt about breaking promises to the geisha, either. He's one of those sentimentalists who wants to have some sort of authentic experience, I think, who labels his emotions as intense and real but in truth he's just living life on the surface. I have no idea if Kawabata sees his protagonist this way, but that's how he comes across to me. Shimamura is a hollow little man who only pretends to feel, living a hollow little life where he's an expert on things he's never actually seen. All of this sounds like the makings of a good novel, but it's just a tiny handful of details in Snow Country. I am, I realize, making the book sound better than it is.

It's okay, and it's interesting because this world of a resort along a train route through the snowiest region of the world in northern Japan, where businessmen leave their families behind to sit in cold rooms and watch the sunlight change on the mountain slopes and then have carefully-made-up women dote upon them, sing and dance for them, go to bed with them and disappear at dawn while the hotel manager keeps track of the hours (all added to the room bill), is a very alien world to me. I don't much care for this alien world, I admit, and I know I'm missing a lot of the cultural referents. I know that I'm missing a lot of the meaning toward which Kawabata gives hints, so perhaps I don't understand this story at all. Mostly I'm okay with that, because I don't think direct and clear understanding of the artist's culture is a necessary part of enjoying a work of art. My trouble is primarily with the writing, I think, or maybe the translation; a lot of the prose seems to mean nothing on a grammatical/syntactical level:

"I made a mistake. I saw you as soon as I came down from the mountain, and I let myself think that all the geisha here were like you," he laughed. It occurred to him now that the thought of washing away in such short order the vigor of seven days in the mountains had perhaps first come to him when he saw the cleanness of this woman.

I have no idea what that means. I've read that paragraph half a dozen times and I simply cannot parse it. There's a lot of that sort of prose in this novel, stuff that looks like it means something but doesn't actually add up to a coherent thought. The nature writing, and the writing about music and art, and the basic story of a rich dilettante who is interested in the emotions of women as reflections of his own actions are all interesting so I keep reading, but I can't help thinking that when I've done with this book I will have not actually have read it.

"A waste of effort" is Shimamura's judgment of a great deal of human activity, especially creative pursuits done purely for pleasure and not for gain or at a professional skill level. Nothing he does is a waste of effort, but he is surrounded, it seems, with wasted effort. This might be a really cool, really insightful novel, but I'm just not able to find my way into it, which leaves me frustrated.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

About Last Night

Jack O'Lantern, the 2012 edition. I swear he looked scary before we turned out the lights:

(photo credit: Mighty Reader)


The trick-or-treat count was low again this year. I hear that all the kids are commuting to the tonier neighborhood of north Capital Hill. I shake my fist at you, tonier neighborhood.

Our plans to watch a scary movie or read scary stories came to nothing. Instead we fussed with the pictured pumpkin, attended to the occasional costumed child, and read separate books. I finished The Defense and it was excellent. I realize I've read three Nabokovs this year. I've been reading a lot of Russian literature lately, so my next book is a classic of modern Japanese literature. After that, assuming I finish Fortunata and Jacinta any time soon, I'll read Ulysses again, because it seems like the right thing to do. Meanwhile, I'm closing in on the end of Chapter 9 of Mona in the Desert. There's not much of Mona in this chapter; it's all about Olive and her two Ernests. There'll be more of Mona in Chapter 10, I think. More of the Church of the Sleepy God and the Triplets. Flammable materials will be involved, I predict.