The OF Blog: February 2016

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A few thoughts on the passings of Harper Lee and Umberto Eco

This past Friday saw the passing of two of my favorite writers, Harper Lee and Umberto Eco.  For very different reasons, each has influenced me as a reader.  At the risk of writing treacly tripe, I just wanted to share a bit about what I enjoyed about their works.

I first encountered Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as part of my college prep junior English summer reading list.  Although there were several other "worthy" books there that I also enjoyed (Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon being one of them), there was something special about Lee's book that took me years to understand.  Perhaps it was a shared affinity for our hometowns, despite the ugliness that underlay local society.  Perhaps it was just the games of youth created before the age of internet and advanced video games that captivated me.  Or maybe it was this nascent, barely self-aware, sense of outrage at the world's cruelties that fascinated me.  But I suspect, in addition to these possibilities suggested to me through my experiences as an adult, what I really enjoyed about To Kill a Mockingbird was that it was a story of juvenile growth that did not dismiss the worries and concerns of childhood, but instead it was a story of humaneness in the midst of casual injustice.

Lee's interest in exploring Scout's growing awareness of the social hypocrisies around her is seen even further in the pre-Mockingbird draft, Go Set a Watchman, that was published last year.  Despite the controversies surrounding its publication and some of the character arcs, I found that novel exploring certain intriguing avenues (such as Jean Louise's clashes with her father and uncle) that the later To Kill a Mockingbird obfuscated due to its switch in focus to Scout's formative years.  As a Southerner who has conflicted views about his native region, I found Lee's exploration of similar concerns to be comforting, as her characters worked through certain doubts and conflicts in a fashion that enabled me to work through my own issues as a teenager.

But if Lee's works sparked an emotional response to matters of society and racism (and the hypocrisies that exist at their merging bounds), then Umberto Eco's works, fiction and non-fiction alike, stimulated a more intellectual response to human conflicts and the desire to understand collected knowledge.  I remember first discovering Eco by accident a little over twenty years ago, when I was outside looking through the free bin at the Knoxville McKay's used book and music store when I discovered a battered paperback, missing the front cover.  The blurb about a medieval mystery intrigued me, so I kept it for Christmas Break reading a few weeks later. 

Having taken courses in medieval intellectual history and Latin provided me with some insights into what Eco's characters were discussing and what really fascinated me was how easily he mixed the arcane with the familiar, the secular with the religious.  There was a very palpable narrative tension (William Weaver did an outstanding job with the translation; the original Italian was only slightly smoother in shifting between the erudite discussions in Latin and the vernacular) throughout the novel, yet the source of this tension was something I had never really encountered in fiction before.  Over the next few years, I read his latter novels (reading the last three soon upon their publications, the last two in Italian before the English translation was published) and found myself mesmerized by how he could mix in conspiracy theories, legenda, and humor to create engrossing tales.

Yet the more I read Eco, the more curious I became about his non-fiction.  I knew something of semiotics from grad school, but reading translations of Serendipities, Kant and the Platypus, and Mouse or Rat?, not to mention his illustrated books on beauty, ugliness, and lists, deepened my appreciation for him as a thinker.  Reading Eco is not best for more passive readers.  He wants the reader to engage with the texts, both as if they were veritable scriptures and as if they were elaborate forgeries that had to be cracked.  He "lies" to us, or perhaps reveals our possible self-deceptions through his examination of texts.  As he states in the opening chapter, "The Force of Falsity," to Serendipities regarding historical forgeries:

And yet each of these stories had a virtue:  as narratives, they seemed plausible, more than everyday or historical reality, which is far more complex and less credible.  The stories seemed to explain something that was otherwise hard to understand. (p. 17)
This "falsification" of the inexplicable in order to create coherency (albeit not a truthful one) is something he explores in multiple fashions across his works.  It is, as he said in the introduction to his book Dire Quasi la Stessa Cosa (Saying Almost the Same Thing):

Ecco il senso dei capitoli che seguono:  cercare di capire come, pur sapendo che non si dice mai la stessa cosa, si possa dire quasi la stessa cosa.  A questo punto ciò che fa problema non è più tanto l'idea della stessa cosa, né quella della stessa cosa, bensì l'idea di quel quasi. (p. 10)
This is the meaning of the following chapters: trying to understand how, despite knowing that although one never says the same thing, you can say almost the same thing. At this point the problem arises is not so much the idea of the same thing, nor that of the same thing, but the idea of that almost.

As my Italian reading comprehension is weaker than my Spanish or Portuguese, the translation is likely "rough," but yet that roughness and imprecision serves to underscore Eco's point.  It is never about saying the exact thing, providing the exact truth, but rather it's more about those almost truths from which we construct our understandings of the world and our perceived realities.  Embedded within this are our semantic memories (a topic he explores within his relatively underrated The Flame of Queen Loana), the fount from which our world views arise.

In reading Eco, especially his non-fiction, I found my interpretations of reality to be tested.  Certain narratives were rejected in favor of other, perhaps equally "false" but still more plausible, ones.  Sometimes it felt as though I were slowly being let in on a grand joke, albeit one in which I was partially the punchline.  In re-reading some of his works these past two days, I cannot help but feel we have lost a great thinker and forger of plausible lies.  Coupled with the emotional resonance I found in Lee's work, these two now-departed writers perhaps, more than most, if not all other writers, have helped mold me as a reader.  But while in certain senses the Authors are Dead, their texts still live on.  Now to free up some time to delve back into them and see how I shall be touched again on a re-read and how I might still be transformed as a reader.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Tales and Sketches

Bartram and his little son, while they were talking thus, sat watching the same lime-kiln that had been the scene of Ethan Brand's solitary and meditative life, before he began his search for the Unpardonable Sin.  Many years, as we have seen, had now elapsed, since that portentous night when the IDEA was first developed.  The kiln, however, on the mountain-side, stood unimpaired, and was in nothing changed, since he had thrown his dark thoughts into the intense glow of its furnace, and melted them, as it were, into the one thought that took possession of his life.  It was a rude, round, tower-like structure, about twenty feet high, heavily built of rough stones, and with a hillock of earth heaped about the larger part of its circumference; so that blocks and fragments of marble might be drawn by cart-loads, and thrown in at the top.  There was an opening at the bottom of the tower, like an oven-mouth, but large enough to admit a man in a stooping posture, and provided with a massive iron door.  With the smoke and jets of flame issuing from the chinks and crevices of this door, which seemed to give admittance into the hill-side, it resembled nothing so much as the private entrance to the infernal regions, which the shepherds of the Delectable Mountains were accustomed to show to pilgrims. ("Ethan Brand," pp. 1051-1052, Library of America edition)

Like many Americans, I first encountered Nathaniel Hawthorne in high school (sophomore year for me) when we devoted six weeks to the "reading" of The Scarlet Letter.  Although I liked that novel a bit more than most of my classmates, I don't recall ever really having a desire to read any of his other works, even despite seeing encomiums to him written by divers writers whose works I did enjoy reading over the intervening twenty-six years.  Even in college, I never was assigned any of his short fiction in my English Comp classes (however, I was blessed to be introduced to William Faulkner then), so it wasn't until this past month that I ever got around to reading any of his short stories and sketches.

I say this as a long preface because the stories found within the Library of America volume, Tales and Sketches, that collect all of his extant published stories from 1830 to 1854 were a revelation to me.  It was interesting to see certain story conventions that I had encountered in other writers here in a slightly different, sometimes rawer, state decades before those other tales were written.  In reading several of his stories, particularly "Ethan Brand" and "Roger Malvin's Burial," I was struck by how chilling his backdrops were due to the elegant placement of metaphor and simile; it was no wonder to me that Henry James praised him highly, as there seem to be certain stylistic elements in common between these two stories and James' The Turn of the Screw, if memory serves (it has been, however, nearly twenty years since I last read that novella, so I might be mistaken).

Even more than any superficial or substantive influences Hawthorne might have had on some of my favorite authors is the effect that his native New England had on his writings.  Born on the fourth of July 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne might appear to be fated to be blessed and cursed to bear the burdens associated with that date and place.  There certainly is a different strand of "local color" to his stories that differentiates him from the mainstream of mid-19th century Anglo-American literature.  Sin and the desire to expiate it run like a current through many of his tales, but most explicitly in "Roger Malvin's Burial," where we witness the tortured life of Reuben Bourne and the effects that a vow made in his youth has on his life.  Or how about this passage from "Young Goodman Brown":

And there they stood, the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness, in this dark world.  A basin was hollowed, naturally, in the rock.  Did it contain water, reddened by the lurid light?  or was it blood?  or, perchance, a liquid flame?  Herein did the Shape of Evil dip his hand, and prepare to lay the mark of baptism upon their foreheads, that they might be partakers of the mystery of sin, more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than they could now be of their own. (p. 287)

In Hawthorne's best stories, such as the ones cited above, there is a palpable sense of emotion, sometimes verging on dread, that slowly yet steadily builds through the narrative course.  In these tales, there is an interesting interplay between the often-stern, sometimes eloquently taciturn New Englanders who populate his sketches and tales and their harsh, unforgiving environments, both natural and internal alike.  We see the predecessor of Hester Prynne and her scarlet A in "Endicott and the Red Cross," where an anonymous young adulterous woman is seen sporting the scarlet A embroidered with fine materials, "so that the capital A might have been thought to mean Admirable, or any thing other than Adulteress." (p. 544).  Yet this tale does not revolve around this arresting yet fleeting woman, but rather around another act of rebellion, one that presages, in narrative terms, that of the region against royal/Anglican authority.  Hawthorne does an excellent job plumbing the depths of emotional turmoil in order to bring to light some of our basest, most primal urges and conflicts.

Yet as outstanding as a great many of these tales are, it is equally obvious that amongst the hundreds of stories included here that there are a fair share of duds.  Some of these are truly sketches of greater stories, replete with false starts and unfulfilled promises.  Others are just tedious to read and are obviously essays into narrative craft that are otherwise unmemorable.  Then there are Hawthorne's retellings of classic myths, in which the sometimes saucy commentaries by the children toward their pompous tutor are far superior to the actual retold tales.  I was of two minds while reading those "Twice-told Tales":  First, the moralizing and occasional distortion of the Greco-Roman originals was irritating.  Second, the children's responses within the frame narratives partially redeems these moralizing tales, imbuing them with a second layer that, while not superior to that employed by Boccaccio in The Decameron, at least adds certain subtleties to the narrative that otherwise might have suffocated in its primness.  Although I suspect the latter interpretation might not have been exactly what Hawthorne had intended (after all, these were marketed then as children's tales), it certainly is a plausible reading, at least for twenty-first century readers.

Tales and Sketches shows Hawthorne before and at the cusp of his greatest literary success.  Although the collection as a whole is uneven, containing as it does the known entirety of his shorter works, there are enough gems in here to appeal to those who did enjoy his novels or to those like myself who are fascinated with stories that utilize atmosphere and internal conflicts to drive the narratives.  After reading it, I find myself more curious not just about Hawthorne's longer prose works (which I will read and likely review later this year), but also about the 19th century New England literary scene.  In particular, after seeing a reference to him in one of the frame stories of "Twice-told Tales," I especially am curious to explore the literary relationship between Hawthorne and Herman Melville.  Certainly this volume helps the reader gain a better, deeper understanding of Hawthorne and how his stories have influenced generations of American (particularly New England) writers.

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