Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The air is filled with invisible ideas

I've read a couple of brilliant short books lately: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West and Ghosts by Cesar Aira. They are nothing alike, these books, but they have things in common. How's that work? you might ask. I will tell you.

No, I won't. I will abandon the--I can't remember the word; I have the flu, you know; conceit is the word I want--I will abandon the conceit of claiming to write about these two short novels as if they are related. I just happened to read them one after the other, and happened to be happily impressed by both of them, and I just happened to notice that

1) Each writer crams a lot of ideas into a short book, and

2) Each writer does something interesting with images and multiple meanings, but not necessarily in a straightforward symbolic or metaphorical way.

I'll begin with the Rebecca West. I'm not going to bother talking about what these books are about. Or at least I hope not; despite my best efforts, I always find myself falling into the trap of interpretation, which is never where I intend to go when I write about books. We'll see how well I do. Where was I? Oh, Rebecca West. This book is filled with details, finely-observed details of landscape, architecture and dress. Here is an example:
It was the first lavish day of spring, and the sunlight was pouring through the tall arched windows and the flowered curtains so brightly that in the old days a fat fist would certainly have been raised to point out the new translucent glories of the rose-buds; it was lying in great pools on the blue cork floor and the soft rugs, patterned with strange beasts; and it threw dancing beams, that should have been gravely watched for hours, on the white paint and the blue distempered walls. It fell on the rocking-horse which had been Chris' idea of an appropriate present for his year-old son and showed what a fine fellow he was and how tremendously dappled; it picked out Mary and her little lamb on the chintz ottoman. And along the mantelpiece, under the loved print of the snarling tiger, in attitudes that were at once angular and relaxed--as though they were ready for play at their master's pleasure but found it hard to keep from drowsing in this warm weather--sat the Teddy Bear and the chimpanzee and the woolly white dog and the black cat with the eyes that roll. Everything was there, except Oliver. I turned away so that I might not spy on Kitty revisiting her dead.
That's how West lets the reader know that Kitty and Chris have lost a child and have left the boy's room unchanged since his death. There are also finely-observed details of human nature. Here is a wonderful passage:
She held in her arms her Chinese sleeve dog, a once prized pet that had fallen from favor and now was only to be met whining upward for a little love at every passer in the corridors, and it sprawled leaf-brown across her white frock, wriggling for joy at the unaccustomed embrace. That she should at last have stooped to lift the lonely little dog was a sign of her deep unhappiness.
That's the stuff. That's what I hope to find when I open up a book. I could give a fig for world-building or plot twists. I want poetry and empathy. Here's one last little bit:
Margaret smiled at that and turned to me, "Yes, take me to the nursery, please." Yet as I walked beside her up the stairs I knew this compliance was not the indication of any melting of this new steely sternness. The very breathing that I heard as I knelt beside her at the nursery door and fitted the key in the lock, seemed to come from a different and a harsher body than had been hers before. I did not wonder that she was feeling bleak, since in a few moments she was to go out and say the words that would destroy all the gifts her generosity had so difficultly amassed. Well, that is the kind of thing one has to do in this life.
I don't have time to even bring up the layers upon layers of irony West has worked through this story. It's a perfect piece, and it's aged quite well after nearly a century.

But I want more, too. I want ideas and musing. In Cesar Aira's Ghosts there is a long section in the middle of the book about architecture, and the relationships between humans and the spaces they inhabit, be those spaces physical or imaginary, earthbound or mythical. It's a tour de force, if I'm spelling that correctly. Even if I'm not. Here's a brief excerpt, though the digression is wide-ranging:
There are societies in which the unbuilt dominates almost entirely: for example, among the Australian Aborigines, those "provincial spinsters" in the words of Levi-Strauss. Instead of building, the Australians concentrate on thinking and dreaming the landscape in which they live, until by multiplying their stories they transform it into a complete and significant "construction." The process is not as exotic as it seems. It happens every day in the western world: it's the same as the "mental city," Joyce's Dublin, for instance. Which leads one to wonder whether unbuilt architecture might not, in fact, be literature.
And so on, all very cool and surprising, especially in the center of a story about a Chilean night watchman and his family who live atop a luxury condominium that is in the process of being built, a construction site haunted by dozens or scores of naked male ghosts, who are visible to members of the lower classes but not to anyone else. The ghosts are able to pass through the floors and walls of the rising condominium, and they frequently laugh raucously at the workmen and the architect. For the ghosts, the edifice is imaginary. The workmen build tables and benches from scrap lumber every day during lunch break. Much of the watchman's house high up on the seventh floor is also provisional, and he will take his family to a new worksite when the luxury condo is complete. Ideas of space and occupancy recur throughout the book, as well as ideas about time and the dividing line between past and future. One character crosses that line in a deliberate manner, and as a result Aira is able to give us one of the finest, most beautiful passages I've read. I cannot quote it for you without spoiling a great deal of the plottiness of the book, and I know some readers read for plots and endings. I'm not one of those readers. I also can't quote it for you (I had done, but I've deleted it) because so much of the effect of the passage requires your having read the second half of the novel. So go do that. Read the first half of the novel first. Aira does something magical at the end, a simple trick with directions of travel that changes a tragedy into a sort of miracle. Beautiful, is what it is.

11 comments:

  1. There is a lot to be said about short books. (Is that ironic, I wonder!) In any case, I am at the point in my life where long books that I encounter are better suited as doorstops, and my short-attention span (and shorter memory) is better suited to short books. So, now that I mumbled all of that, I appreciate your comments and Rx for shorter books. Finally, there is this: the shorter book (a.k.a., the novella) has had its ups and downs in publishing history, and I wonder if publishers are more or less interested in shorter books; it seems to me that there are fewer novellas now being published. Or perhaps I am wrong. You tell me

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  2. The last couple of long books I've read have left me a bit exhausted, so I decided that for now, anyway, when I approach my immense "to be read" pile, I will take up whatever the shortest book is to read next. I'll start with Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores (currently reading) and end up with The Last Chronicle of Barchester, which appears to be the longest thing we have in the house.

    I have no idea how the publishing world sees the novella; the publishing world is just like every other business, being filled with idiots and having no real idea what they're doing from one moment to the next, so I don't take this year's lists as anything like a measure of what readers are doing, which is where the important action is. I do know that Melville House, however, has that "Art of the Novella" line of books, which are all marvelous, but they're a small house and they really only have to sell a couple thousand copies of each title to be profitable (especially since most of the titles are out of copyright so no authors are getting paid). I buy quite a few Melville House books, not just the novellas. I don't know, overall, how the novella is doing these days.

    What literary agents tell writers is that editors are not interested in novellas or very short books. Although they aren't looking for very long books from new writers, either. In general, for a book written for the adult "literary" market (whatever that is), the minimum length of a book is 80,000 words, or 300-350 pages, depending on typeface, leading, and trim size. But I am nothing like an industry insider; I'm barely a published novelist, so what do I know? You can pick up all of those ultrashort Bolano novels in most shops these days, but they were only published after Bolano died; while he was alive, nobody in America was touching them. But none of that matters. There are already more excellent novellas published than anyone has time to read. The same can be said of novels, of course. I may well be the only person on Earth who will read Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier this year. That's okay, too. I have lost the train of my thought here.

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  3. Have you read Garcia-Marquez's other short novels? I remember enjoying them a dozen or so years ago, and I am tempted to revisit each of them.

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    1. I've read a bunch of his stuff over the years. Collections of short stories, the autobiography, 100 Years of Solitude and some other books but I'm lousy at remembering titles. I haven't read Love in the Time of Cholera. Probably I've read less than a third of his output. That's a guess. I forget how much I like Garcia-Marquez. Though I have just reached a part in Melancholy Whores that is making me uncomfortable. We'll see what happens there.

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  4. Love in the Time of Cholera is my favorite GGM novel. I think my constantly increasing close-encounter with old-age is the reason for my preference. It is a book for an aging romantic.

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  5. Poetry and empathy. I don't think I've ever heard what I look for in a book expressed so succinctly. Everything else is a stylistic choice and may be well done or ill done but poetry and empathy --that's what will keep me reading.

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    1. A writer can get plenty else wrong, but if she can make it to beauty and truth, I'll stick with her.

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  6. These sound interesting. I've never read Aira.

    I think that there are other presses that publish novellas... I published a short novel with P. S. Publishing (UK) when they asked for a book a few years ago--it's in their novella series. I'm very fond of the shorter length. Starting as a poet, I've never been very good at putting in the fat. Never learned to like it much...

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    1. My own books are pretty lean, too. I'm trying to let myself expand a bit, but not so much that I'm purely padding things out.

      I keep telling myself I'll write a novella but I keep not doing it.

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  7. I suppose New Directions is doing OK with Aira. They keep popping them out, at least. I have even bought a couple with my own money.

    I can imagine - as if I remember the passage! - how any quotation from the end will seem flat without what came before.

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    1. Ghosts really works cumulatively. Isolated passages are deceptively simple. The stripped down, unadorned building is sort of a metaphor for the book itself.

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