The OF Blog: May 2013

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Arthur Phillips, The Tragedy of Arthur

Meta-narratives are tricky beasts.  Author-as-pseudocharacter so easily can fail on a number of fronts:  lack of intrigue in the metacharacter; stilted, artificial prose that renders the narrative as only a technique and not one that "breathes"; plots that collapse under the weight of the levels of narrative and theme.  Yet when an author manages to pull it off, it is something to behold.  In his 2011 novel, The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips has created a dual-level narrative that first entrances the reader before entrapping her within its web.

Desire lurks at the heart of The Tragedy of Arthur.  It is only fitting, considering how desire (for self-improvement, power, lust, love, zealous faith) occupies the center of so many tragic narrative webs.  It is a tale of Arthur, who shares many biographical details in common with the author, who has a long, complicated relationship with his father, a master forger.  It is a story of a reader's befuddlement regarding William Shakespeare and the enduring power that this playwright and poet has had for the past four centuries.  It is this and much more, as the story feels so brutally direct and "human" that it is easy to overlook in the beginning Phillips' narrative sleight-of-hand that makes the direction of this tale so fascinating to read even when the "tragedy" becomes apparent to readers.

The core narrative deals with Arthur's decades-long relationship with his father, his sister, and their lionizing of Shakespeare.  Shakespeare's themes, quotes, and literary approaches are thrust at Arthur at a young age.  He wants to rebel against this overwhelming project of first his father and then later his sister, but he is weak, easily succumbing to these two stronger-willed individuals, with some self-loathing resulting from it.  As Arthur develops his love-hate relationship with Shakespeare after his father's lengthy absences due to his prison terms for forgery, a complex portrait emerges of the father:
"I will not try to excuse my father's acts.  His acts were his own.  His mistakes, crimes, defeats:  these were his own.  As Shakespeare wrote, I would not have it any other wise, and that is surely how my father felt.  But I will say this of his life:  he believed that the world could be transformed completely, if only occasionally, if only for one person at a time, but that was something, and that was worth it.  There are times when I consider some of his greatest creations, his most selfless creations, and I feel cowardly in comparison when I think of what he hoped to achieve in his work.
"A novelist tries to capture a person in a phrase (a walk-on character), or a paragraph (a minor character), or a page (a major character), or a whole book (for the protagonist), but how to describe an entire life of a real person?  Not in snatches of action or frame-frozen descriptions, but over a whole life?  My father eludes my abilities.  I can write a paragraph about him for you, but it seems to miss everything, even though it's all true:
"As far as an accurate portrait of my father, I don't know if that paragraph is him or not.  This writerly method fictionalizes him, cuts off so much of him – so many contradictions, extenuations, annexes, chapters – that what remains is only a shadow of him, a shadow of his hopes, and a shadow of his griefs.  It seems impossible to descend through all the layers of him at even a single moment or at a single decision.  I consider even one of his pedestrian crimes, and I ask myself, What motivated him?  His worst moments can be explained by:  his wonder-lust philosophy, bitterness, pride in his craftsmanship, mere habit, inevitability, simple greed and thoughtlessness, genetic selfishness bordering on criminality, love.  I can hardly pull the burrs away to find the man underneath..." (pp. 218-219 e-book edition, Ch. 37)
Arthur's father certainly looms large over this complex narrative.  He has not only shaped, willy-nilly, both Arthur and his sister, but he has willed to Arthur something that is either the find of the century or his greatest forgery ever:  a weathered, battered copy of a "lost" play of Shakespeare's, The Tragedy of Arthur.  It is within this play, which is reproduced in whole as the second half of the book, that Phillips explores so many issues:  the influence of Shakespeare's diction on our own; the ways in which readers idolize writers and raise them above the level of mere mortals in the case of Shakespeare and a rare few others; human desires for things to be good even when they are not "true" or "just"; the power that myths have even in today's more secular age on motivating us; and the binds that tie us together may chafe us to the point of distraction.  It is almost surprising that Phillips manages to weave these weighty and sometimes disparate elements into a cohesive whole; by every right, this novel should have collapsed under the weight of its pretensions.

Yet it succeeds and it does so in spectacular fashion.  In Arthur and his sister we see not just the parallels with Shakespeare's characters, but also of our own lives.  In the father is a mirror of not just Iago but also every storyteller.  The details of Arthur and his family's lives are well-drawn and the foibles and ruinous relationships resound with readers because they echo, without full replication, themes explored by other talented writers such as Shakespeare.  Yet Shakespeare himself is not the origin nor the terminus of these recastings of human dramas in written form, a point that Phillips-as-Arthur makes several times in the narrative.  Shakespeare is but an embodiment of our own steaming mess of emotions and actions; the English-speaking nations needed a figurehead for these and Shakespeare fit the bill admirably.  In the play itself, so many narrative quirks of Shakespeare are used to create a version of the Camelot tale; it feels "authentic" because of the weight of accumulated cultural inheritances despite our knowledge that it must be "fake."  This dissonance itself recasts the narrative in a new way, one that makes the details of Arthur's family and their lives all the more meaningful, because even artifice can serve nature despite itself.  The Tragedy of Arthur ultimately is one of those rare novels where the layers of deceit and metacommentary feel "authentic" and "real" and that even in the (belated) realization that our culturally-trained reader preconceptions have been turned against us the story still possesses a gravitas to it that makes it a memorable reading experience.

Monday, May 27, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

He went back into his house and Nicole saw that one of his most characteristic moods was upon him, the excitement that swept everyone up into it and was inevitably followed by his own form of melancholy, which he never displayed but at which she guessed.  This excitement about things reached an intensity out of proportion to their importance, generating a really extraordinary virtuosity with people.  Save among a few of the tough-minded and perennially suspicious, he had the power of arousing a fascinated and uncritical love.  The reaction came when he realized the waste and extravagance involved.  He sometimes looked back with awe at the carnivals of affection he had given, as a general might gaze upon a massacre he had ordered to satisfy an impersonal blood lust.

But to be included in Dick Diver's world for a while was a remarkable experience:  people believed he made special reservations about them, recognizing the proud uniqueness of their destinies, buried under the compromises of how many years.  He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect.  Then, without caution, lest the first bloom of the relation wither, he opened the gate to his amusing world.  So long as they subscribed to it completely, their happiness was his preoccupation, but at the first flicker of doubt as to its all-inclusiveness he evaporated before their eyes, leaving little communicable memory of what he had said or done. (pp. 27-28).
 For many, the 1920s is an age of carefree revels and rebellious hedonism before the sobering crash of October 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.  In literature, it saw the debuts of several talented American writers, from William Faulkner to Sinclair Lewis to Ernest Hemingway to the Midwestern-born but Princeton-educated F. Scott Fitzgerald, each of whom blazed their own path to fame while articulating elements of American society in their stories.  Yet there was a downside to their fame, as three of the four turned to drink to stave off depression and the mounting pressure from readerships that expected more from them.  But it was Fitzgerald who managed best to capture this inebriated-fueled dilemma in his fourth and last-completed novel, Tender is the Night (1934).  Nine years in the making, Tender is the Night has long been overshadowed by the posthumous success of his third novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), but a strong case could be made for Tender is the Night being Fitzgerald's deepest, most accomplished work of fiction.

Set mostly in the mid-1920s, Tender is the Night revolves around a set of American expatriates living on the French Riviera.  Among these are a young glamorous couple, Dick and Nicole Diver.  In the opening scenes of the book, we witness a key moment in the lives of the Divers.  A young American actress, Rosemary Hoyt, has come with her mother to live in the area and she is immediately attracted to Dick.  A young, talented, and ambitious psychoanalyst, Dick seems to have it all, as between Nicole's wealth and his charm the two have succeeded in creating a glamor that bedazzles not just Rosemary but others in the Divers' company.  Yet not all is what it seems.  After a horrific turn of events that involves an accidental death and a nervous breakdown by Nicole, the carefully constructed world that they Divers have created begins to unravel.

Fitzgerald uses extended flashback sequences to show how Dick and Nicole came to be together.  Nicole's fear of men, the apparent result of a likely incestuous relationship with her father, is a challenge to the young Dr. Diver and despite the opposition from Nicole's sister, the wealthy heiress Baby Warren, the two marry about five years before the opening events of Tender is the Night.  The narration of Nicole's initial neuroses and her subsequent breakdown after the death on the Riviera contains some of Fitzgerald's finest writings.  Although it is easy to see within the text some rather strong and direct autobiographical details (Fitzgerald's wife Zelda and her battles with mental illness and Fitzgerald's own battles with alcoholism), Tender is the Night succeeds as a portrait of decline/recovery on its own merits, although a cursory knowledge of the Fitzgeralds' situation in the early 1930s certainly adds to the power of these scenes.

In the third part of the novel, after Book II's flashbacks to the early 1920s, there is a role reversal that can be seen.  As Nicole recovers from her relapse, she becomes stronger and less dependent upon Dick.  Dick, on the other hand, has become to drink heavily and he finds himself alienating his partner and clients with his erratic behavior.  Into this maelstrom Rosemary re-enters Dick's life and the aborted romance of Book I is resumed.  This, however, serves to hasten Dick's decline and he succumbs to his personal demons, becoming weaker and less respected with each passing scene until finally Nicole leaves him for another man, Tommy.

Such a summary does little justice toward describing Tender is the Night's true power.  In passages such as the one quoted at the beginning of this review, Fitzgerald eloquently captures a sense of person and place.  It is easy to view the younger Dick Diver as a metaphor for the then-recently-passed 1920s:  full of vim and vigor, with a ringing headache and horrific hangover to follow.  But this is a simplistic interpretation, as fraught with potential misunderstanding as the view of Dick being an avatar for Fitzgerald himself.  No, Dick Diver is a memorable character for those two reasons and others beyond them.  He embodies not just the author or his age, but also a more universal conundrum that men who succeed early in life often experience:  what to do next?  Dick fails to remain relevant in his wife's eyes and in those of the community he once served because he has given up on the dreams that he once had and has now settled for a dissipated life that is hollow of meaning and purpose.  His decline, mirrored in certain facets by the ex-pats, particularly Abe North, around him, resonates with those of us who have ever felt that it is "hopeless" to try to push back the obstacles that face us.  For Dick, his constant tending to Nicole during her relapses has drained him of his vitality.  He turns to drink and (briefly) Rosemary in order to forget for a spell the wasted promise of his youth and the dreary future that seems to lie ahead.  His end is small, diminishing in front of us, an appropriate denouement for such a squander of talent.  Yet this conclusion speaks to those of us who have not experienced the particulars of Dick's recent life:  we may not experience a leisurely life, but many of us can certainly relate to the pressures of caring for another and the energy sapping that this entails.

Tender as the Night succeeds because it is raw, visceral, emotion-laden.  It takes no prisoners and gives no quarter when it comes to characterizations.  No one is spared here and the changes, minute and grand alike, that we witness in not just the lives of the Divers and Rosemary, but also in the other ex-pats who interact with them, are moving because they possess a dark, unsettling truth to them.  This, combined with some of Fitzgerald's best descriptive writing and deft characterizations makes Tender is the Night a poignant, elegantly-crafted tale that speaks just as clearly to us in the early 21st century as it did when it was first published in 1934. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

For the next five weeks, I'm planning to review from this list of books

Nothing like a little challenge to get me to do something, I suppose.  I just wrote out a list (although there are dates listed, the order of the reviews almost certainly will change) of books that I'd like to review for the remainder of this month and June (this does not include any Flannery O'Connor short stories that I might review, although I did include her second novel).  Almost all of the late May/early June entries will be reviewed around those dates, as I'd like to have at least short reviews for each of the ten shortlisted books for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize completed before the winner is announced on June 6.  Something tells me that many will have read at least some of the books on the list:


26  Arthur Phillips, The Tragedy of Arthur/F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night
27  Kjersti A. Skomsvold, The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am
28  Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory
29  Andrew Miller, Pure
30  Sjón, From the Mouth of the Whale
31  Tommy Wieringa, Little Caesar/Caesarion


1  Karen Russell, Swamplandia!
2  Kevin Barry, City of Bohane
3  Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
4  Chimamanda Adichie, Americanah
5  Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
6  Zoran Živković, The Last Book
7  Zoran Živković, Find Me
8  Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, Where the Tigers are at Home
9  William H. Gass, Middle C
10  Ron Currie Jr., Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles
11  Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel
12  Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni
13  Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria
14  Karen Joy Fowler, We are all Completely Beside Ourselves
15  Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear it Away
16  Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
17  M. John Harrison, Empty Space
18  Ismail Kadare, The Fall of the Stone City
19  Thomas Wolfe, O Lost
20  Nihad Sirees, The Silence and the Roar
21  Jim Gavin, Middle Men
22  Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River
23  Yoko Ogawa, Revenge
24  Donna Tartt, The Secret History
25  F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise
26  F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and the Damned
27  Thomas Wolfe, The Web and the Rock
28  Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again
29  Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
30  Graham Greene, The End of the Affair

It'll be interesting to see how closely I manage to keep to this demanding schedule.  But I do plan on writing two reviews this evening.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Now that the school year is ending shortly, a plan for June

Ever since I took a part-time ESL teaching position in February and then an evening job working with autistic children, my time has been short.  I have several books that I want to review but haven't had the time/energy to do them.  So I thought now that the school year is ending here that I would do something ambitious to get back in the habit of writing and reviewing.  So here's my tentative plan for June:

I'm going to schedule/write at least one post (over half of which will be reviews) for each day of the month.  I say "schedule" because on June 7-8, I'll be in Vicksburg, Mississippi with my dad and middle brother visiting the Civil War battle site (there'll be a post on that after I return), so I'll schedule two posts to appear on those days that I am gone from home.

I plan on reviewing (if I don't do some of it in the next 10 days) the other novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald that I haven't already reviewed (Tender is the Night likely will be reviewed before May 31st, so This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and the Damned, and the unfinished The Last Tycoon) and maybe an overview of some of his short fiction.  I will also resume writing backdated reviews of Flannery O'Connor's fiction, at least to get caught up to the Friday schedule I had planned in January before I was hired for my positions.

Probably will also review more of Zoran Živković's work as well; certainly The Last Book and its sequel, Find Me, will be reviewed.  Hope to review a couple of recent Spanish-language releases, including Ildefonso Falcones' latest historical fiction, La reina descalza (The Barefoot Queen).  There might be some coverage of Clockwork Phoenix 4 (disclosure:  I donated money to the Kickstarter for it) and possibly for Conjunctions: 60: In Absentia.  And other works that will be as much of a surprise for me to cover as it may be for you to read here.

Oh, and maybe there'll be a squirrel sighting or two.  They are devoted, rabid...readers, after all ;)

What's been released so far in 2013 that I should consider reading/reviewing?

The titular question pretty much says it all:  what books, whether they are novels; poetry collections; short fiction collections; anthologies; realist fictions; speculative fictions; weird fictions; non-Anglophone works in languages that I can read (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, and with help some German and Serbian), that have been released in 2013 that I should consider reading/reviewing that I have not yet read?

Below is a list of the 2013 releases that I have read, followed by those owned that I haven't yet finished reading:

Already Read:

1.  Leah Stewart, The History of Us
2.  Tomas Dobozy, Siege 13 (collection)
3.  George Saunders, Tenth of December (collection; already reviewed)
4.  Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, A Memory of Light (already reviewed)
5.  Jim Harrison, The River Swimmer
6.  Thomas Maltman, Little Wolves
7.  Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe, Peanut (graphic novel)
8.  João Barreiros (ed.), Lisboa no Ano 2000 (Portuguese; anthology; already reviewed)
9.  Yoko Ogawa, Revenge (collection)
10. Adam Mansbach, Rage is Back
11. Jamaica Kincaid, See Now Then (already reviewed)
12. Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito, The End of Oulipo? (non-fiction)
13. Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar (English translation; already reviewed)
14. Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove (collection; already reviewed)
15. Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds (made a brief commentary already)
16. Carlene Bauer, Frances and Bernard
17. John Thavis, The Vatican Diaries (non-fiction; already reviewed)
18. Ismail Kadare, The Fall of the Stone City (English translation)
19. Jennifer Cody Epstein, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment
20. Pierre Grimbert, The Secret of Ji:  Six Heirs
21. John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen (eds.), Oz Reimagined (anthology)
22. Xu Lei, Search for the Buried Bomber (English translation)
23. Jim Gavin, Middle Men (collection)
24. Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (already reviewed)
25. William H. Gass, Middle C
26. Nalo Hopkinson, Sister Mine
27. Nihad Sirees, The Silence and the Roar
28.  Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
29. Mary Beth Keane, Fever
30. Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, Where Tigers are at Home (US edition of English translation)
31. James Salter, All That Is
32. Alliah, Metanfetaedro (Portuguese; collection)
33. Ron Currie Jr., Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles
34. Jonathan Dee, A Thousand Pardons
35. Justin Landon and Jared Shurin (eds.), Speculative Fiction 2012 (non-fiction anthology; contains two articles by myself)
36. M. John Harrison, Empty Space (US edition)
37. May Swenson, Collected Poems (Library of America edition)
38. Ildefonso Falcones, La reina descalza (Spanish)
39. James Kelman, Mo Said She Was Quirky

Own But Not Yet Finished Reading:

40. Mike Allen (ed.), Clockwork Phoenix 4 (anthology; I contributed to the Kickstarter funding of it)
41. Denise Kiernan, The Girls of Atomic City (non-fiction)
42. Chimamanda Adichie, Americanah
43. W.S. Merwin, The Collected Poems of W.S. Merwin (two-volume Library of America edition)
44. Brooks D. Simpson (ed.), The Civil War:  The Third Year Told By Those Who Lived It (non-fiction anthology published by the Library of America)
45. Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni

While this might seem like an exhaustive list of 2013 releases to date, I'm certain there are several promising and/or outstanding works that have slipped my attention.  So feel free to suggest recent releases that might be of interest to me and/or this blog's readership.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Maturation and reviewing

For the past two and a half months, I have busy with two jobs that take up 13 hours of my waking days/nights during the weekdays.  I have not written as much here or at Gogol's Overcoat as I would have liked due to prioritizing sleep (and to a lesser extent, some reading) over writing reviews and commentaries.  Now while this will change for a couple of months this summer to some extent (only working/driving 10 hours/day compared to 13), it does take a toll on me now that I'm approaching 40 (weird to think that is less than 14 months away now).

Lots of thoughts lately on what I've been reading that I haven't yet put to e-print.  Memories of past selves, dreaming and envisioning things that have not yet come to fruition or have shifted with age and experience.  Not as many speculative fictions read lately, not because I've suddenly become inveterately opposed to them, but more because what I am seeking involving more a turning inward, for a time at least, and that seems to be more the province of poetry and realist literature, although certainly there are some "weird" fictions that explore things that jibe with my current desires.

So with these thoughts in mind, it was interesting to discover this weekend this post written about two weeks ago by Tobias Buckell in response to a book blogger's (n.b.  I reject this term in describing what I do) lament about his change in reviewing focus.  Buckell raises some interesting points about the "maturation" of online reviewers/book bloggers, particularly in regards to his first point:

1) When you get to a point where you’ve read an amazing number of books, you change. You’ve read so much that what may seem new or interesting to most (and even to the writer of the book you’re reading) is just a variation to you. Your expectations regarding the work change.

Due to subjectivity being what it is, many writers can mistake what’s happening and view it as the books getting worse, not their own aesthetic changing. Two things can happen. One, despair at what they perceive is the dying of quality. You see this a lot with people who hit a certain number of books read: they begin to rail against the dreadfulness of everything. It can lead to bitterness, cynicism, and outright hatred of something they previously loved.

There is certainly a lot of truth to this.  Over the course of 21 years (since my high school graduation in May 1992), I have probably read a little over 10,000 different books.  Histories, cultural studies, monographs, poetry, religious tracts, novels, short fiction – in aggregate, reading and, even more importantly, commenting on these disparate works has helped me mature not just as a reader but also as a person.  But I do not fully agree with Buckell's comment that "what may seem new or interesting to most (and even to the writer of the book you're reading) is just a variation to you."  This statement implies a static relationship on the part of the text in contrast to a dynamic paradigm shift for the reader.  This does happen often, yes, but not necessarily always.  At times, texts can seem to shift themselves due specifically to the reader's own maturation.

For example, I just finished re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night for the first time in at least 15 years.  I recall thinking back in 1997-1998 that it was superior to The Great Gatsby and that it had to do with how the characters of Dick and Nicole Diver were drawn, but re-reading this weekend (and also having just watched the 1961 cinema adaptation of it) made me appreciate it even more.  Due to 15 years' greater experience with reading and reviewing fiction, I feel as though I have a greater understanding of how Fitzgerald came to spend so much time working on this novel; it has a raw, visceral quality to it that The Great Gatsby mostly lacks.  It is not a work that has "aged poorly" for me, but instead one that speaks at least as well to the 38 year-old me as it did to the 23-24 year-old version.

What Buckell focuses mostly on in his article is SF/F fiction.  To be fair, that is what most "book bloggers" (or at least those of whom a SF/F author would likely be aware) cover.  Even this blog, back when it was intended to be an affiliate of the now-defunct wotmania site, began with a focus on SF/F, although even back then, there was a sense of a dichotomy between what I had grown up reading – poetry and realist fictions – and what I had largely "discovered" (outside of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis) in my mid-20s.  So soon after wotmania went offline, I began to drift back toward my adolescent interests.  Yet re-reading old favorites revealed my tastes had shifted in the interim.  Gone was a "simple" reaction of a reader to the text.  Instead, likely influenced equally by the dozens of short reviews of historical monographs that I had to write in college and grad school and by the fictions, realist and speculative alike, that I had read since my late teens, I was a more "critical" reader, looking not just at the "checkbox" elements of lit courses but also at how things were integrated (or not) within a text.

At first, I consciously decided not to include these reflections within my reviews; after all, back during the first five years of this blog's existence, I was more interested in building an audience than I was in exploring what interested me the most.  But after a while, I grew weary of worrying about others' expectations and I decided over the past four years that I would try to review and promote more of the literature that interested me now.  So there have been more non-Anglophone literature reviewed (both realist and speculative alike).  A bit more on poetry (although I've yet to port over here my two columns on Eric Basso's writing that I wrote last year for Weird Fiction Review; I consider my piece on his poetry to be the best writing I did in 2012), although I would like to focus more on it in the near future than I have to date.  These things likely cost me much of my "audience," or at least the one I had from 2004-2009, but I think there have been those who have discovered this blog precisely because I started reviewing things that not many others were doing, or at least not all in one (or two) place.

Now let's look at Buckell's second point, which I think is more applicable to those who review only one form of literature than toward those who have shifted their reading/reviewing focus like I have done:

2) If you’re able to either unconsciously or consciously navigate the above, what you’re left with isn’t a raw, initial passion for reviewing what you love, but a more craftman’s-like examination of the book for an audience you may no longer really be a part of, but can remember being a part of. It’s easy to slip into this vein, by will or luck, because it does allow you to keep reading a ton while reporting back on the basics of what you read.

What those reviews are basically covering is “If you like X sort of thing, this hits X okay, with some additional Y and Z, if you also are into that.” Do they feel sucked dry of a bit of the reviewer’s authorial voice? Yeah, probably, because the reviewer has had to step back out of necessity in order to report back to a larger audience.

I think it’s probably a sign of a maturation of book blogging. I’m seeing a lot of book blogs that I used to have bookmarked went and folded up shop. I imagine that was as a result of hitting a certain threshold of either of the two points I relayed, and not seeing a way through. Book bloggers are doing it for the love, they’re not making mad money. They’re enthusiastic spreaders of the word.

So what happens when a lot of that joy fades? Do they continue on momentum? Look to monetize the blog? Focus only on the books that they love, and risk losing the audience and community they created (because they’re interested in artist’s artists, or decrying the lack of originality, while readers who enjoy the books being decried decamp)? Get bitter and throw some bombs, which will certainly create debate and energy, but can also create pushback and enough argumentation that they get tired of the fighting about stuff (unless they’re trollish in nature, in which case they feed off the acid and you’ll always have that)?

I’d be curious to see what long-term professional reviewers think about this stage. As an author you hit this stage, and you often see new writers hitting it. As they accumulate enough writing craft and books read, they pass through a great deal of 1 and 2. And it’s hard to talk someone down in the middle of that.

I've never been a reviewer whose reviews have been dominated by "passion."  If anything, that likely has created a barrier between myself and certain readers who do want a more "personal connection" with a reviewer.  But I think my long-standing devotion to "craft" has served me well, as there is something to be taken (I hope!) from my reviews other than just a simple "did he like it or not?"  Perhaps this is a "maturation" that took place before I ever created this Blogger account in August 2004.  Certainly it is a lasting influence of my academic days and it is, for myself at least, a positive influence that has led to opportunities, professional and personal alike, that I likely would not have had the chance to do if I hadn't been more devoted to my "craft."

Buckell's post can perhaps be summarized as being not just solely about the "maturation" of "book blogging," but also about the poles of "love" and "hate" that a writer can experience over the course of his/her career.  It feels like something that would be penned by someone transitioning into middle age and who has asked himself similar questions (which he does acknowledge in the course of his article).  I myself feel such a dilemma has grown ever more remote as I have aged.  What I do is explore and (re)discover things of personal interest.  These interests change in numerous ways, but there is more to discover than to worry about what doesn't appeal as much to me at the moment.  Perhaps that's a "maturation" of a different sort, of the sort referenced by Bob Dylan in his song "My Back Pages"?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Great Gatsby (1974 film)

Cinema is a very different medium from literature, no matter how frequently and how in-depth directors appropriate literary works in creating their cinematic adaptations.  Often films labeled "based on the novel" are wretched, turgid affairs not because the directors fail to be faithful enough to the source material but instead because they are too faithful, at least to the letter of the story and not to its spirit.  This is especially notable when the source material is a classic that has the mass readership comparable to F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby.  In the 88 years since its release, four cinema versions (only three are extant - 1949, 1974, 2013 - with the 1926 silent film version being mostly "lost") and one television mini-series (2000) have been released.  Of these adaptations, I have seen the 1974 and 2013 versions and over the course of two reviews, I plan on noting the ways that both approach Fitzgerald's novel and the strengths and weaknesses of each.

The 1974 version certainly had some major starpower.  With a screenplay written by Francis Ford Coppola, this film also featured Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan.  With a running time of just over 2 hours and 20 minutes, the film was very faithful to the scenes and dialogue of the novel.  If anything, it tried too hard to replicate the voice of the novel, instead creating a cinematic experience that is often cold and distant from the vibrancy of Fitzgerald's tale.  The only two characters who stand out are Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) and George Wilson (Scott Wilson); each of them figures more significantly into the action here than in the 2013 edition.  The rest of the roles are competently if not brilliantly executed by others including Bruce Dern (who played Tom Buchanan) and Lois Chiles (Jordan Baker).

The action mirrors the novel closely; there are very few scenes that do not at least quote parts of the corresponding novel.  At times, the movie feels as though it is close to becoming vibrant and emotional, only to see those traces of livelihood stamped down almost immediately.  Redford, based on his other films of the 1970s, could have displayed a wider range with Gatsby, but instead (possibly directed to do so by director Jack Clayton) his Gatsby is too formal, too polished, too devoid of inner anguish to really engage the viewer.  Likewise, Farrow's Daisy is an odd character.  While her Daisy at least attempts to speak with a posh Southern accent, there were several instances where Farrow's Daisy oscillates between capricious love and diffident materialism.  While this oscillation certainly jibes more with the original novel than how the character was portrayed in the 2013 version, it is too jarring here.  Perhaps the point is that Daisy's vapidness is what makes her character so attractive to some, but Farrow too often overplays it.  Her scenes with Redford feel cold and the emotional lines uttered by both feel as natural as if a Wookie were to start emoting Hamlet.

Yet there are some interesting moments in this film.  Early scenes with Myrtle Wilson and the McKees in the NYC apartment as well as the first seen party at Gatsby's mansion reveal a more nuanced approach toward the flappers and their rebellion against social mores than does the 2013 version.  Here, there is not the emphasis on spectacle that the recently-released adaptation has, but instead in their dances and in their comments, the young women, major and bit players alike, are not as sexualized here.  Although there certainly are hints of dalliances taking place in this film, the women here are allowed to be slightly more well-rounded than they are in the current release.  Chiles' Jordan Baker more openly displays her amorality compared to Elizabeth Debicki's portrayal, as her interpretation of the character is more subtle and yet clear in terms of her refusal to be constricted by rules and regulations.  As noted above, Farrow's Daisy displays a wider range (albeit a range that sometimes works against the best interests of key scenes) and she is not as apparently besotted with Gatsby as was Carey Mulligan's interpretation of the character.  The same goes for Karen Black and how her Myrtle Wilson captured more of the class consciousness of the novel than Isla Fisher's more sex-centered portrayal.

Waterston's Nick carefully walks the line between being a keen observer and a callow pushover.  His Nick is perhaps slightly better than Tobey Maguire's simply because Nick plays a more integral part in the 1974 film.  Yet due to his co-stars' failures to capture the mixture of burning passion and callousness that was present in the novel, Nick's more memorable lines do not succeed in capturing the depths of his emotional confusion and outrage.  The only character that truly does so is George Wilson.  Scott Wilson's interpretation captures a man whose simple honesty stands in sharp relief to the capricious games that the Buchanans, Jordan, and others play over the course of the film.  His descent into murderous grief is very believable here because more effort is made to show his inner conflicts.

At nearly two and a half hours, this film felt at times interminable due to the subpar acting performances and focus on showing the glamor of the 1922 Long Island setting at the expense of developing the characters better.  Yet the film suffers not only because it is compared to a great novel, but because its own promise was thwarted time and time again by Clayton's choice to emphasize the exterior at the expense of the characters themselves.  With few exceptions, the characterizations show glints of greatness that are covered with a thick grime of affected poses and perfunctory nods toward character conflict.  This 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby captures the skeleton and most of the skin of the novel, but its heart and soul are withered in comparison.  Not recommended for most viewers.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.  The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.  Most of the confidences were unsought – frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions.  Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.  I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.
And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit.  Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don't care what it's founded on.  When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.  Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction – Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.  If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.  This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the "creative temperament" – it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.  No – Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. (pp. 6-7 e-book edition)
For nearly ninety years, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) has entranced and befuddled readers.  It is simultaneously a narrative of an age and a repudiation of it.  At times elegant and sophisticated in its treatment of the Jazz Age of the 1920s, it also outlines the self-destructions that took place during the Prohibition Era in the aftermath of World War I.  Yet each generation finds something of itself within this narrative.  For the first readers, The Great Gatsby was a portrait of ephemerality, a mere capturing of a helluva party and its blinding hangover.  It is little surprise in hindsight that during Fitzgerald's lifetime that it sold poorly; it was but one of several "period pieces" and not necessarily the most inventive one (even among Fitzgerald's own works) at that.  Yet something began to change during World War II.  Perhaps it was the author's death and his friend (and book critic) Edmund Wilson's tireless championing of Fitzgerald's work that led to its rediscovery nearly twenty years after its initial publication.  Whatever it was, for the post-WWII generation, The Great Gatsby read more like a prophecy of their own times, of the period before the deluges of the Great Depression and World War II.  The wild excesses of the speakeasies and the flamboyant daring of the flappers stood out in contrast to the grinding mass poverty of the 1930s and the destruction of WWII.  It is easy to see within The Great Gatsby a condemnation of the extravagance of the Roaring '20s and a brief hint of the ruinous world to come.  Yet other generations, namely those of the '60s and '80s, could see in the hypnotic lure of the period presages of their own riotous rebellions against the parsimonious qualities of the decades before them.  Even today, there is something compelling about that time which Fitzgerald narrates in such detail.  In the wake of the wars on terrorism and human rights (depending upon your outlook, I suppose), there is a paradoxically hedonistic innocence to the Jazz Age.  The rations of WWI were over, women had begun to gain long-overdue civil rights, and the whole country seemed to be in a state of reactive rebellion against the constraints of rationing and the Progressive Era prohibition movement.

Yet within these socio-cultural rebellions lurked something less noble and more threatening.  In the character of Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald presents a modern-day Trimalchio (originally, this was the title to the first draft of the story), a near-innocent who observes the degradations that people put themselves through in order to make themselves believe that they are alive and of great worth.  The opening section, excerpted above, shows the character reflecting back on the tumultuous year of 1922 in the fictitious Long Island settings of East and West Egg.  Through the Midwestern middle-class eyes of Nick, Fitzgerald details not just the glitz and glamor of the bon ton set but also the more sordid lives of the Wilsons and those who lived on the margins of (polite) society during the 1920s.  Overlooked by readers focusing on the love triangles of Gatsby-Daisy-Tom and Tom-Myrtle-George is Fitzgerald's keen eye for the troubling societal issues of the day.  "The valley of ashes," while it does not constitute a major part of the story in terms of page count, provides a counterpoint to the decadent parties of the West and East Eggers:
This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the form of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powderly air.  Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight. (beginning of Ch. 2, p. 25 e-book)
It is here that the most grievous exploitations are witnessed:  the cuckolding of the auto repairman George Wilson, the casual domestic violence toward his wife Myrtle by Tom, and the casual dismissal of the populace by both the nouveau riche West Eggers and the old money East Eggers alike.  Fitzgerald outlines their plight in short yet sharp strokes; a detailed portrait of the lives of those who did not benefit from the 1920s speculations glints through the narrative.  Yet Fitzgerald's main concern is not with illustrating the underclasses and how they bear the brunt of providing the services for the idle elites but instead is with exploring the moral lassitude of the business and gentry classes.  In scenes involving the consumption of bootlegged alcohol or the parties at Gatsby's, the shallowness and corrupted natures of a wide range of characters is shown:  barely is anyone exempt from Fitzgerald's caustic pen, as police commissioners rub drunken shoulders with crime lords while carousing young men and women dance in a Bacchanalia of frenzied excess.  The overall effect is that of an observer narrating the decline and fall of a civilization into petty greed and self-absorption. 

This certainly can be seen in three of the main characters:  Jordan Baker and the unhappily-married couple of Tom and Daisy Buchanan.  Beneath the flash of each of them (golf star, debutante, former college athlete and wealthy heir) lurks nastier traits such as Jordan's duplicity toward not just Nick but to all that she encounters; Daisy's reduction of love to material baubles; and Tom's arrogance toward those who he presumes to be of "lower status" than himself.  Even Nick comes across as a pushover, a semi-willing accomplice to deeds that he publicly professes to despise.  The world of the Buchanans and those who move in their circle such as Jordan is that of callous disregard for those who cannot provide them with what they need.  Fitzgerald not only has Nick voice these opinions but he reveals them through the actions of these characters.  The result is a story version of staring entranced at a cobra, knowing that eventually it is going to strike with deadly consequences.

And so it goes in the second half.  Ironically, it is Gatsby himself, with his mysterious past, who provides a counter.  He moves in the world of swindlers, social parasites, and gangsters and yet no matter how many of their guises he may don, ultimately none of these cling to him.  He is surprisingly noble and optimistic in a society that has narrowed its hopes from the spiritual to the base materialism of money, booze, and sex.  If anything, he is almost too good to be true and it is to Fitzgerald's credit that he recognized that and created a character with enough foibles to become a flawed yet sympathetic character whose pseudo-requited love and tragic end resonate more powerfully because he is the antithesis of the other characters.

The Great Gatsby flows smoothly from scene to scene, as the reader witnesses the apparent dissolution of the Buchanans' marriage and the apparent renewed love of Daisy and Gatsby in a detailed yet quick-moving fashion.  Fitzgerald's dialogues are outstanding, as he masterfully captures the voices of his characters.  There are very few false notes, either in the narrative or in the themes that Fitzgerald explores.  The conclusion is powerful because of the time spent developing the characters and their flaws.  There are no heroes, just only the dead and animated corpses who have shambled throughout the book looking for their next fix.  The Great Gatsby continues to be an important work not because it is required reading for millions of high school and college students but because it transcends its particular time and explores the human condition in a way that makes it feel new for succeeding generations.  It truly is a masterpiece of American literature and one that deserves to be examined and re-examined as its readers grow older and perhaps less wise about the world around them.

Flannery O'Connor, "Good Country People"

In February 1955, just as she was readying the order of stories for A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Flannery O’Connor wrote a story, “Good Country People,” over the course of four days that she later gushed about in letters to publisher Robert Giroux (Feb. 26) and Thomas Mabry (March 1).  In her letter to Mabry, she outlines the story’s connections with her other fictions and and how her faith informs her writing:
I am glad you see the belief in mine because it is there.  The truth is my stories have been watered and fed by Dogma.  I am a Catholic (not because it’s advantageous to my writing but because I was born and brought up one) and at some point in my life I realized that not only was I a Catholic but that this was all I was, that I was a Catholic not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist but like someone else would be an atheist.  If my stories are complete it is because I see everything as beginning with original sin, taking in the Redemption, and reckoning on a final judgment.  I have heard people say that all this stifles a writer, but that is foolishness; it only preserves your sense of mystery…
I have delayed my collection a little by writing a story two weeks ago called “Good Country People.”  It is the best thing I have done and they will include it if doing so doesn’t cost them too much money.  If they don’t include it, I am going to send you a copy of it because it is one of those examples of the will and the imagination fusing and it is so rare an experience for me that I am a little unhinged by it. (pp. 930-931, Library of America edition)
In many aspects, “Good Country People” lives up to O’Connor’s self-appraisal.  In it can be found the echo of themes that she explored in her earlier fictions, as well as a conclusion that might be, along with those of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “The River,” one of her best.  It, like several other tales in the 1955 collection, is an exploration of pride and the forms in which it manifest itself.  “Good Country People” also relies heavily on irony, as seemingly innocuous events early in the story are inverted by story’s end and recast as something darker, more significant than what otherwise might be expected.

The story opens with the reflections of a landlady, Mrs. Hopewell.  Although Mrs. Hopewell is not the central character in “Good Country People,” her meditations on people, particularly her tenants, the Freemans, and her daughter Joy, establish the dissonance between how the characters see themselves and how the situation actually is:
Since she [Mrs. Freeman] was the type who had to be into everything, then, Mrs. Hopewell had decided, she would not only let her be into everything, she would see to it that she was into everything – she would giver her the responsibility of everything, she would put her in charge.  Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people’s in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack.  She had hired the Freemans and she had kept them four years.
Nothing is perfect.  This was one of Mrs. Hopewell’s favorite sayings.  Another was:  that is life!  And still another, the most important, was:  well, other people have their opinions too.  She would make these statements, usually at the table, in a tone of gentle insistence as if no one held them but her, and the large hulking Joy, whose constant outrage had obliterated every expression from her face, would stare just a little to the side of her, her eyes icy blue, with the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it. (pp. 264-265)
There is more than just a faint echo of “A Good Man is Hard to Find”‘s grandmother or the child from “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” in Mrs. Hopewell and her miserable, bitter daughter.  The mother’s false sense of propriety finds its twisted mirror image in the daughter’s sneering, self-loathing self.  Joy, the victim of some childhood hunting accident that led to the amputation of a leg, is the object of her mother’s pity, which infuriates Joy (or rather, Hulga, as she legally changed her name to that when she reached adulthood) to no end.  If Mrs. Hopewell can be seen as a representation of the vacuous, self-blinding “good” member of society, Joy/Hulga in turn represents the frustrated, bitter pride of those who feel as though they have been denied fairness in life.  Further burdened with a “weak heart” that might curtail her life, Joy/Hulga has built up high walls of resentment and bitterness.  Possessing a Ph.D. in Philosophy and yet unable to find even a modicum of happiness or joy in her life, the now thirty-two year-old Hulga believes that by embracing nihilism (or what she understands to be nihilism) that she will gain a sense of superiority over others that her body has failed to allow her to do.  It is an ugly portrait of an character and yet that ugliness fascinates O’Connor.  She easily could have merely set Hulga up for a dashing of this false sense of herself, but she goes beyond Hulga’s petty self and delves into a deeper, societal-wide hypocrisy that presumes to know “good country people” (and by implication, its opposite) when they see it.

“Good Country People” turns from internal character analyses toward a metaphorical discussion of pride and self-blindness when an apparently naive, bumbling Bible salesman, Manly Pointer, makes his appearance, futilely trying to sell a Bible to Mrs. Hopewell:
He didn’t get up.  He began to twist his hands and looking down at them, he said softly, “Well, lady, I’ll tell you the truth – not many people want to buy one nowadays and besides, I know I’m real simple.  I don’t know how to say a thing but to say it.  I’m just a country boy.”  He glanced up into her unfriendly face.  “People like you don’t like to fool with country people like me!”
“Why!” she cried, “good country people are the salt of the earth!  Besides, we all have different ways of doing, it takes all kinds to make the world go ’round.  That’s life!” (pp. 270-271)
Embarrassed enough to ask him to stay for dinner, Mrs. Hopewell finds herself beguiled by Pointer’s seemingly simple earnestness, so unlike her own jaundiced view of people.  Yet somehow, he manages to catch Joy/Hulga’s attention enough to surprise Mrs. Hopewell.  However, for Hulga, this is little more to her than an opportunity to defraud a simpleton, a way to prove to herself that her belief that she can see through everything will be confirmed.  The two plan to walk together in the countryside the following Saturday.  Hulga makes vague plans on how to seduce this simple-minded salesman, but as the two walk and eventually climb into a barn loft, this apparent fool is nobody’s fool at all, as he casually crushes each of Hulga’s cherished beliefs in her superiority, leaving her forlornly to recognize the depths to which she has been duped, not just by “Pointer,” but also by her own self-pride in “knowing” that there was ultimately nothingness around which people constructed their fantasies.

O’Connor does an outstanding job in developing events leading up to Pointer’s unmasking of his true self.  The little self-deceptions that Hulga, her mother, and even the relatively worldly Mrs. Freeman engage in see their fruitions in the story’s final three pages.  Yet there is more to “Good Country People” than the revelation of the deficiencies of Hulga’s view of herself and the world.  There is the sense of multiple self-deceptions and self-blinding behaviors that can be seen in people from all walks of life.  O’Connor not only makes a statement regarding the limitations of “nihilistic” worldviews, she also presents in an unflattering light the self-importance that people attach to themselves.  Beyond Hulga’s prideful belief that nothing matters lurks the mother’s milder yet ultimately no better view of others around her or Mrs. Freeman’s more cynical view of society.  Even “good country people” is little more than the imagined prosperous lauding an equally imagined group of poor souls whose “goodness” is merely a cover for their inability to manipulate the deceit-ridden world around them.  O’Connor turns a bright light on this view, revealing its core of benign contemptuousness.  In this can be seen a greater sense of inflated pride, in that “we won’t be taken in like that!” while time and time again, this assumption is proven to be false.  “Good Country People” succeeds as a tale because it operates on more than just the plot level.  The irony of seeing Joy/Hulga’s preconceptions turned against her is only the surface level of a story that has deeper thematic levels, each of which reinforce each other and create a deceptively complex tale that reveals new layers upon successive re-readings.  Out of the ten stories that appear in A Good Man is Hard to Find, “Good Country People” is the equal to “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and the last story in the collection, “The Displaced Person,” for its prose, characterization, and thematic treatments.  Simply put, it is an outstanding short story, one that can be approached from multiple perspectives and still possess a vitality to it even after it has been dissected and its components probed extensively.

Originally posted at Gogol's Overcoat in March 2013.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Why reviewing "the classics" matters in this day and age

This past Friday saw the release of the 2013 cinema version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel The Great Gatsby.  Doubtless in the days to come, there will be several articles, online and print alike, comparing the novel with the cinematic adaptation.  Almost as likely will be comments, some of them wistful and others less charitable, about the novel's plot, characterizations, and prose.  After all, The Great Gatsby is one of the leading exemplars for both the perceived pros and cons of having required literature reads in school.  Tens of millions, if not hundreds, of Americans are at least casually aware of the title, regardless of their actual engagement level when they encountered the story.

With this near-universal exposure, not to mention the countless hours devoted by literature teachers to explaining the novel's core elements, many might question the need to write anything new on the book; after all, the book has been covered from all sorts of angles over the past nine decades.  Yes, for some it might make more sense to just accept what the previous generations have said about a classic such as The Great Gatsby and use that as a starting point for one's own exploration of the story.  However, I believe this would be a grievous mistake, one that possibly could further the perceived divorcing of a literary work from the latest generations of readers.

So-called "classics," whether they be from Sumeria or the end of the 20th century, have at some point or another engaged a critical mass of readers.  The forms vary widely (Hemingway and Dickens could hardly be more divergent in narrative style), yet there is something that captivates a regional, national, and/or global audience.  For some works, such as the aforementioned The Great Gatsby, they encapsulate the espirit du temps so well that they become emblematic works.  It is difficult to conceive of a Jazz Age or Roaring '20s without a Jay Gatsby fictitiously inhabiting it.  Yet generational differences color the understanding.  Contemporary readers gushed over its capturing of the present spirit; today, Fitzgerald's book is held up as a commentary on a time just before the deluge of the Great Depression.  For these sorts of works, each succeeding historical generation will reinterpret the work to fit within their own fears and desires.

When I was a cultural history grad student, I had a professor who convinced me that my 1990s understanding of Herman Melville's Moby Dick was flawed due to my unwillingness to mine the depths of his work when I was 17.  All too often we are exposed to a work when we ourselves are too underdeveloped to have the critical tools necessary to assess the work at hand.  If we ourselves change so much from say 15 to 40 (and of course beyond to advanced age), then would it not make sense to reassess those literary "classics" that we may or may not have loved in our youth?  Furthermore, if there is indeed a paradigm shift in literary valuation as we age, then would it not be best to record our own reinterpretations of those works that constitute touchstones of regional/national/global cultures?

I would argue that times such as this cinematic adaptation of Fitzgerald's most famous work are a perfect time for readers to not just (re)read such a classic, but also to record their thoughts.  Not only will this have the benefit of (re)connecting readers to a famous work of a previous generation, but our own reviews and critiques can further add to the layers of commentaries.  Things do fall out of favor; sometimes this begins with appreciative readers failing to express their appreciations for posterity.  Better to contribute to the lengthy conversation between Text and Reader than to let it wither away to the mumblings of a few specialists who grumble about there being so few to talk with about a wondrous work.

Be afraid, be very, very afraid!

Apparently this is an actual movie.  I think it should be the early favorite to win an Oscar next year, duh.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Flannery O'Connor, "A Late Encounter with the Enemy"

In several of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, character foibles provide the main narrative drive.  There is something satisfying, in a Schadenfreude sort of way, in seeing a character’s preconceptions of the world torn to shreds.  This certainly can be seen in “A Circle in the Fire” and even within “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” but this narrative device is used most directly in O’Connor’s only Civil War-related story, “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” (1953).  This story, eleven pages long in the Library of America edition, is short, sharp, and succinct in its treatment of misplaced pride.  This story of an decrepit 104 year-old Civil War veteran, “General” Sash and his 62 year-old teacher granddaughter, Sally Poker, does not contain the depth of most of O’Connor’s other stories, but it does not need it, as it is so vicious and yet touching that the surface of the story should suffice for most readers.

“A Late Encounter with the Enemy” is seen through both the General and Sally Poker’s points-of-view.  The passage quoted below, taken from the first two paragraphs of the story, illustrate perfectly the story’s structure and development:
General Sash was a hundred and four years old.  He lived with his granddaughter, Sally Poker Sash, who was sixty-two years old and who prayed every night on her knees that he would live until her graduation from college.  The General didn’t give two slaps for her graduation but he never doubted he would live for it.  Living had got to be such a habit with him that he couldn’t conceive of any other condition.  A graduation exercise was not exactly his idea of a good time, even if, as she said, he would be expected to sit on the stage in his uniform.  She said there would be a long procession of teachers and students in their robes but that there wouldn’t be anything to equal him in his uniform.  He knew this well enough without her telling him, and as for the damm procession, it could march to hell and back and not cause him a quiver.  He liked parades with floats full of Miss Americas and Miss Daytona Beaches and Miss Queen Cotton Products.  He didn’t have any use for processions and a procession full of schoolteachers was about as deadly as the River Styx to his way of thinking.  However, he was willing to sit on the stage in his uniform so that they could see him.
Sally Poker was not as sure as he was that he would live until her graduation.  There had not been any perceptible change in him for the last five years, but she had the sense that she might be cheated out of her triumph because she so often was.  She had been going to summer school every year for the past twenty years because when she started teaching, there were no such things as degrees.  In those times, she said, everything was normal but nothing had been normal since she was sixteen, and for the past twenty summers, when she should have been resting, she had had to take a trunk in the burning heat to the state teachers’ college; and though when she returned in the fall, she always taught in the exact way she had been taught not to teach, this was a mild revenge that didn’t satisfy her sense of justice.  She wanted the General at her graduation because she wanted to show what she stood for, or, as she said, “what all was behind her,” and was not behind them.  This them was not anybody in particular.  It was just all the upstarts who had turned the world on its head and unsettled the ways of decent living. (pp. 252-253)
Here are dual narratives that parallel and compete with one another.  First is the old man, living his last days in a haze of forgotten memories and lustful desires, seeking to be the center of attention.  He lives in part because he cannot think of being anything else other than alive.  He knows his past is a partial fantasy; he cannot bear to remember (or so one might suspect, if he had a choice in the matter) what he had endured.  He has been reduced to nothing more than a living relic, but he still views himself as a handsome old codger whose greatest pleasure is being surrounded by pretty women.  He occupies only the Present; the Past and Future are equally meaningless to him.

His granddaughter, however, inhabits the past and the remembered failures of her life.  She embraces it as a refuge from the real and perceived humiliations of her life, such as the state forcing her after years of being a teacher to go to college in order to learn how to be a teacher or the wrong shoes that she wears for an important occasion.  Her pride is not in her present state but in the half-real, half-fictional past that she has constructed for her family from the living corpse of her grandfather.  There is no familial affection present in her relations to him; he is a means to her glorification, a symbol of her being able at long last to thumb her nose at those “upstarts” who are challenging the precious social order that she has held dear for decades.

Characters such as these immediately grab the reader’s attention, for their vanity and self-absorption made for a delightful comeuppance comedy or a searing moral tale.  O’Connor manages to capture elements of both in this story, all the while also succeeding in making these characters sympathetic even as we might take delight in seeing their pride crushed.  Although the story ends abruptly with the General’s “late encounter with the enemy,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” is one of O’Connor’s more memorable tales because the reader is able to delve deeper than normal into the characters’ mindsets.  It may not be her best tale, but “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” certainly one of O’Connor’s better character portraits.

Originally posted at Gogol's Overcoat in March 2013.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Flannery O'Connor, "A Circle in the Fire"

Out of the stories covered so far from her 1955 collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find, “A Circle in the Fire” (1954) might be one of the hardest of Flannery O’Connor’s stories to decipher on a thematic/religious level.  It’s not so much that the narrative is difficult (it is not), but rather that on the surface the “circle in the fire” metaphor appears to run counter to several of the themes that O’Connor addresses in her other stories.  Yet there is something about this story that tugs at the reader, as though reminding her that there is something being overlooked.  However, this “overlooked” element perhaps is as much an underdeveloped theme as it is a failure on the reader’s part to identify precisely just what that might be.

“A Circle in the Fire” opens, as do most of O’Connor’s works, in rural Georgia sometime in the early-to-mid twentieth century.  Two women, Mrs. Pritchard and Mrs. Cope, described through their contrasts and their former similarities, are discussing local calamities, such as the suffering of a woman who gave birth while hooked up to an iron lung, while gardening.  O’Connor’s vivid description of the land they are gardening, such as Mrs. Cope’s “work[ing] at the weeds and nut grass as if they were an evil sent directly by the devil to destroy the place” (p. 232), foreshadows the events that follow.  It is an arid summer and Mrs. Cope’s fields and woods are tinderbox-dry.  She and Mrs. Pritchard worry about fire, and yet that “fire” has a more sinister metaphorical connotation.  There is a tinge of judgment in how Mrs. Cope views the world, from the depravities of youth to the black servants of her neighbor:  “Her Negroes were as destructive and impersonal as the nut grass.” (p. 233).  In short, O’Connor devotes the first quarter or so of this eighteen-page story to contrasting Mrs. Cope’s harsh, judgmental view of the world with the sere landscape.

The story then turns to three youths, somewhere around 11-13 years of age, who appear on Mrs. Cope’s property.  One, Powell, is the second son of a former tenant, now recently deceased in Florida, and he has persuaded the others to come to Mrs. Cope’s plantation-sized farm ostensibly in order to remember older, more carefree days of walking the fields and riding the horses.  Mrs. Cope quickly becomes suspicious of the boys and their laconic, almost surly responses to her perfunctory hospitality:
“In the woods!” she said.  “Oh no!  The woods are very dry now, I can’t have people smoking in my woods.  You’ll have to camp out in the field, in this field here next to the house, where there aren’t any trees.”
“Where she can keep her eye on you,” the child said under her breath.
“Her woods,” the large boy muttered and got out of the hammock.
“We’ll sleep in the field,” Powell said but not particularly as if he were talking to her. 
“This afternoon I’m going to show them about this place.”  The other two were already walking away and he got up and bounded after them and the two women sat with the black suitcase between them.
“Not no thank you, not no nothing,” Mrs. Pritchard remarked.
“They only played with what we gave them to eat,” Mrs. Cope said in a hurt voice.
Mrs. Pritchard suggested that they might not like soft drinks.
“They certainly looked hungry,” Mrs. Cope said. (p. 240)
This quoted passage contains the germ of the conflicts that constitute the remaining half of the story.  Mrs. Cope sets out to do what she feels she is obligated to do, but her actions are always tinged by the suspicion that the boys are up to no good and that they themselves might be as bad-hearted as a hardened criminal.  Her suspicions are fueled by reports from Mrs. Pritchard of the boys riding Mrs. Cope’s horses, smoking cigarettes, and perhaps purloining food.  In her eyes, the boys become less and less those on the cusp of adolescence and more and more like little devils sent to torment her.  O’Connor’s decision to tell this story strictly through Mrs. Cope’s limited perspective allows her to illustrate through dialogue Mrs. Cope’s inability to understand the boys with whom she has entered into a struggle for control.  Yet this narrative choices robs the story of some of its potential vitality, as the three boys by story’s end have been reduced to little more than symbols of Mrs. Cope’s misguided worldview; they are not fleshed out and their actions at the story’s end feel sketchy and incomplete.

On a thematic level, there seems to be an attempt to create a warped, twisted parallel to the Biblical story of the fiery furnace, with the three boys representing the defiant Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in their refusal to conform to the ways of Babylon.  The boys refuse most of the food that is offered to them, not out of fear of defilement but for other, possibly more nefarious reasons.  They go against the commandments that Mrs. Cope gives them regarding what parts of her land that they can visit and where they can sleep before they are to be picked up by Powell’s uncle. And then there is the “circle in the fire” that closes the story, their escape from a conflagration that they started themselves, seemingly in spite of Mrs. Cope’s fears of a brush fire.  Yet these parallels feel weak and underdeveloped.  Part of this no doubt is due to the lack of attention devoted to the boys themselves, yet part of it likely is due to O’Connor’s story feeling “stretched” and too insubstantial for the purposes she had in mind.  The result is a story that feels incomplete, sketchy, as though it were lacking the depth of O’Connor’s other stories.  It may not be as weak as “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” but “A Circle in the Fire” is one of the weaker stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find.

Originally posted at Gogol's Overcoat in March 2013.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Zoran Živković, The Five Wonders of the Danube

Када му је најзад пажњу заокупила слика, поново је споредно однело превагу хад главним.  Прво је помислио на оно што га чека на рапорту код старешине Обласне управе за мостове.  Свакако ће бити оптужен да је спавао у чуварској кућици, а такав преступ није могао да прође без строге казне.  Можда ће чак остати без посла.  Неће му ништа вредети што ће се заклињати да није ока сллопио целе ноћи.  У прилог му неће ићи ни то што ниједном није заспао за тридесет седам година службе.  Као да је већ чуо громовни глас старешине:  ”Како је, онда, поред вас будног, неко подигао толику слику наврх моста?”
Није имао одговор на то питање.  Збиља, како?  Па још нечујно и неприметно?  Бар он ништа није ни чуо ни видео.  Мост је био осветљен, а ноћ готово без саобраћаја.  У сваком случају, нико се није зауставио.  Уз то, ово свакако није могао да иѕведе само један човек, нити би биле довољне једне дугачке мердевине, а био би неопходан и алат да се слика причврсти.  Горе нема кука, па да се сама закачи. (p. 4)
When the painting finally caught his attention, once again a further consideration prevailed.  His first thought was of what awaited him when he reported to his supervisor at the District Bridge Administration.  He would certainly be accused of sleeping in the guardhouse and such an offence would have to be severely punished.  He might even lose his job.  It would do no good to swear that he hadn't had a wink of sleep all night long.  The fact that he had not fallen asleep in the thirty-seven years he'd been on the job would also be of no help.  He could almost hear his supervisor's thundering voice:  "If you were awake, how could someone have hung such a big painting on top of the bridge?"
He had no answer to that question.  How, indeed?  And without being heard or seen?  At least, he hadn't heard or seen anything.  The bridge was illuminated and there'd been almost no traffic that night.  In any case, no one had stopped.  And this couldn't have been the work of just one person.  One tall ladder wouldn't have been enough, plus tools would be needed to attach the painting.  There were no hooks up above from which to hang it. (p. 4)
Zoran Živković's 2011 novel, The Five Wonders of the Danube, is perhaps best described as a true mosaic, as it is comprised of five sections, each correlating with famous bridges (Regensburg, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Novi Sad) over the Danube River.  With the exception of the final section (the Blue Bridge of Novi Sad), each of the first four sections (the Black, Yellow, Red, and White Bridges) can be read independently of one another, yet when joined together with the final section, each part forms a whole much greater than its constituent elements.  Each section possesses its own sets of mysteries and wonders, with both representing one of the arts.  In them, we see people baffled by mysterious events, some of which are among some of Živković's most weird creations yet, with each event being associated with an art such as painting, sculpting, literature, or music.

The wonders begin with Regensburg's Black Bridge.  An elderly bridge night watchman encounters a large painting of a bridge that somehow has become attached to the bridge.  From whence did this painting come and to what could it refer?  A growing number of inspectors, from the watchman's supervisor to members of the state secret police, try to delve into its mysteries (and into those of the people who have stumbled upon the painting).  As in much of his previous work, Živković's characters are not quite the non-comprehending people that they appear to be, but instead possess their own little pieces to the puzzle.  As the series of investigators grows, like a set of Matryoshka dolls in reverse, the significance of this bridge painting (attached to a bridge, no less!) grows as well, until it seems that there may be a nefariousness about it.  Then there are some pesky river gulls intruding upon the scene and their own purposes add to the suspense.

Then suddenly, things shift away from Regensburg and go downstream a bit to Vienna's Yellow Bridge, where there are dreamers and sculptors and even a talking, literate squirrel.  Here time itself seems to be in a state of flux and creatures are not what they appear.  The descriptions feel more detached from "reality," yet paradoxically there's more "realness" to the irreal scenes occurring than if the story had been more mundane.  Yet night, like dreams, disperses in the light of day and the strange events of one Viennese night seem to fade like morning mist.

The third section, Bratislava's Red Bridge, was perhaps my favorite of the five.  Here appear two homeless men living under the bridge and trying to keep warm.  One, Isaac, is a talented carver and his likenesses of people and things that he carves into flotsam and jetsam is marveled at by his new companion, a mysterious man who carries around six printed volumes of Dostoevsky's fiction and who receives the moniker of "Fyodor" as a result.  This section, one of the shortest in the book, covers Fyodor's books and his mysterious green folder, which contains a manuscript from which he would read from time to time.  Yet no matter how literate the homeless may be, night's chills can bring about the need to abandon the material of literature for the ephemeral comforts of fire.  It is in this clash between necessity and art that a marvel occurs, one that baffles later visitors.

If the previous sections consist of arts created by the hands of their creators, then Budapest's White Bridge is devoted to the dulcet sounds of music.  An old composer returns to the scene of his greatest inspirations and greatest tragedies, hoping for one final symphony before he retires.  The flashbacks between past and present, interlaced with music and tragic events, creates a poignancy here that was largely absent from the previous sections.  The conclusion is perhaps the saddest and most moving of the book and its end sets up thematically the events of the final section.

By the time the story reaches Novi Sad's Blue Bridge, four mysteries have been established, none of which yet possess any real sort of satisfactory conclusion.  In contrast, this section opens with a very real event, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia's bridges in 1999.  However, Živković (who incidentally survived a very close call when the infamous bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade occurred) quickly departs from this event in that one of Novi Sad's four Danube bridges manages to uproot itself and take it and a bird-dog on a magical flight away from the attacking "birds" and up the Danube, visiting each of the previous four sites in succession.  Here the connections between the sections are made explicit and several of the mysteries are solved.  By itself, the Blue Bridge section is not as fascinating as the others, but when read after them, it builds upon the previous four's wonders, creating something moving and magical. 

The Five Wonders of the Danube works well because Živković has carefully developed the situations and the thematic elements specific to each section so that when the final pages of the Blue Bridge of Novi Sad are read, each element/scene flows directly into one another, widening the reader's understanding.  In a metaphoric sense, it is like a river itself, with tributaries emptying their contents into the main stream, creating something vaster and more awesome to behold.  The same holds true with this story, as the ruminations and mysteries surrounding artists, sculptors, writers, and composers flow into each other, creating a series of dialogues on the arts and the arts' influences on people.  The Five Wonders of the Danube may be one of Živković's two or three best works, as it showcases not only several of his thematic concerns but also his ability to weave seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive and memorable whole. 

Flannery O'Connor, "The Artificial Nigger"

It is little secret to anyone that the American South has had a long, troubled history regarding racial relations.  If anything, it likely is viewed as the epitome of racism, with its chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, and being the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.  If ever the doctrine of Original Sin could be applied so thoroughly to a region and to a whole class of people, doubtless it would be the South in regards to racism, even though a closer look would reveal some discrepancies.  Today, it is hard to look at a story written in the 1950s by a white Southerner entitled “The Artificial Nigger” (1955) and wonder how there isn’t at least the decent asterisk-marking of the offending racial epithet, if not an outright condemnation of a story that almost certainly has to contain objectionable language, if not repulsive, outdated views regarding a minority group.  Yet such knee-jerk reactions would rob the reader of the chance of reading a work that makes a profound statement about the ridiculous societal views through the image of an “artificial nigger.”

The story opens with a sixty year-old grandfather, Mr. Head, awakening during a moonlit light on the eve of his trip with his ten year-old grandson, Nelson, to Atlanta.  O’Connor has imbued this story with several symbolic metaphors and the passage describing Mr. Head’s view of himself and the reason for their travel to the city foreshadows later events:
Sixty years had not dulled his responses; his physical reactions, like his moral ones, were guided by his will and strong character, and these could be seen plainly in his features.  He had a long tube-like face with a long rounded open jaw and a long depressed nose.  His eyes were alert but quiet, and in the miraculous moonlight they had a look of composure and of ancient wisdom as if they belonged to one of the great guides of men.  He might have been Vergil summoned in the middle of the night to go to Dante, or better, Raphael, awakened by a blast of God’s light to fly to the side of Tobias.  The only dark spot in the room was Nelson’s pallet, underneath the shadow of the window. (p. 210)
It is fairly obvious that Mr. Head’s view of himself as a sort of “guide” for his young grandson is going to be upended by the narrative.  But within this passage is a wealth of images:  the raw, drawn-out features of a rural inhabitant; the “miraculous moonlight” that mirrors the light of the day (and of the divine); the references to Dante’s The Divine Comedy and to the biblical book of Tobit; the “darkness” of the boy’s sleeping spot, presaging the grandfather’s view of the boy’s insubordinate pride.  As discussed in my earlier review of “A Stroke of Good Fortune” (1954), pride is one of the seven capital sins that O’Connor addresses frequently in her fiction.  But instead of the hurt pride of one who perceives herself to be “lost” to the charity of others, pride here in “The Artificial Nigger” takes different forms.  There is the pride of the white Southerner who does not want to “lower” himself to address the downtrodden African Americans; the pride of a grandfather wanting to demonstrate his worthiness and world-traveler qualities to his young grandson; and the fear that the young boy has too much pride in a city (Atlanta) in which he was born but from which he was taken at the age of one to the countryside.  Over the course of  twenty-two pages, O’Connor explodes these prideful elements in a story that mixes dark comedy with a sharp, keen critique of mid-20th century racial prejudices.

The plot of the story revolves around the grandfather’s pride (of which he is blissfully unaware until several calamities befall him) getting in the way of both him and his grandson making their way through Atlanta.  From his refusal to admit that he (only a three-time visitor to the city) does not know the way around the city (exacerbated by the circles they make before the boy points out the obvious to him) to his reluctance to seek help (forcing the young boy to be his proxy and see help from a matronly black woman; a key moment in the story) to the trick he pulls on the boy that backfires, the grandfather’s pride in recognizing that the “guide” is perhaps the one who is in most need of guidance occupies center stage.   This pride is not limited to the grandfather; in him, we can see traces of it in our own self-views and in how we choose to treat others.  It is no accident that the true “guides” of this story are from the social/ethnic group that the grandfather dismisses so readily.  And certainly it is the image of the “artificial nigger” that simultaneously reveals the limits of human pride and which brings the grandfather and grandson back together after the series of calamitous events had threatened to sunder their relationship:
He had not walked five hundred yards down the road when he saw, within reach of him, the plaster figure of a Negro sitting bent over on a low yellow brick fence that curved around a wide lawn.  The Negro was about Nelson’s size and he was pitched forward at an unsteady angle because the putty that held him to the wall had cracked.  One of his eyes was entirely white and he held a piece of brown watermelon.
Mr. Head stood looking at him silently until Nelson stopped at a little distance.  Then as the two of them stood there, Mr. Head breathed, “An artificial nigger!”
It was not possible to tell if the artificial Negro were meant to be young or old; he looked too miserable to be either.  He was meant to look happy because his mouth was stretched up at the corners but the chipped eye and the angle he was cocked at gave him a wild look of misery instead.
“An artificial nigger!” Nelson repeated in Mr. Head’s exact tone.
The two of them stood there with their necks forward at almost the same angle and their shoulders curved in almost exactly the same way and their hands trembling identically in their pockets.  Mr. Head looked like an ancient child and Nelson like a miniature old man.  They stood gazing at the artificial Negro as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another’s victory that brought them together in their common defeat.  They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy.  Mr. Head had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now. (pp. 229-230)
Mercy.  It is a strange thing to encounter in a tale that starts off with an old pompous fool and which journeys through a maze of self-deceit and undeserving contempt for a downtrodden race of people, but mercy certainly lies at the heart of this tale.  O’Connor is rather explicit about this in the concluding paragraphs, as Mr. Head elaborates upon this feeling that he first recognizes in the passage quoted above:  mercy is not ever something that humans merit, but which is instead a fountain that springs from God’s love and which can envelop even the most inveterate sinner.  Although today using an entire race of people to serve mostly as a backdrop for a singular person’s realization of his faults likely would be considered to be at least in poor taste, in the 1950s South, doubtless it was a sobering, blistering message regarding the sin of pride and the resultant degradation of the African American communities at the hands of white Southerners who could not bring themselves to admit that their pride had led to horrific treatment of a whole race of people.  Yet limits must be placed on interpreting O’Connor’s story as being part of a greater civil rights struggle.  She certainly was no social progressive, merely one who did not like the excesses of segregation.  Several of her letters during this time period bear this out quite clearly.  Yet nearly sixty years after this story was published, “The Artificial Nigger” is relevant today not for its views regarding African Americans but in its carefully constructed series of metaphors for sin and mercy.  Such religious imagery may not be for everyone’s tastes, but it certainly does capture a Catholic view of the matter very well.

Originally posted at Gogol's Overcoat in March 2013.
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