The only organization to speak of here is top shelf vs. bottom. The upper shelf has books that I would like to read relatively “soon” simply out of current interest. The bottom shelf has less priority. It doesn’t mean those books will not get read, but they are subject to more random whim. There are, though, a couple of books there that I may never read, either from lack of interest or because I never had any but own them because they were freebies. The longest-sitting book currently on the shelves? The Modern Library edition of Le Morte D’Arthur (in a now out-of-print paperback), bought circa 1999-2000.
Monday, May 31, 2010
One thing I’ve noticed about book bloggers is the frequency of allusions to increasing numbers of bought-but-not-read books. From what I can tell my shelves are more moderate than some: in part due to shelf space limitations, right now I keep my unread books to about two (occasionally overflowing) shelves. But I thought it might be fun to actually see more of these shelves of unread books that people so frequently mention. How extensive are they? What do they have on them? Is there any organization specific to them? So I’m offering mine up, in what I hope to be something of a yearly tradition that might reveal how much or how little the shelves change from year to year as I either pull from them or bypass them for a new release or inspired purchase. If you are reading this, I encourage you to play along and post a picture of your own, and leave a note so I know where to find it!
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Over time, without real reading knowledge of the referent, I have come across numerous allusions to Christopher Isherwood’s “documentary style,” which I think is mostly used in reference to The Berlin Stories and its phrase “I am a camera.” This style, accordingly, records the surrounding scene, theoretically “not thinking,” as the narrator of Goodbye Berlin explains. (The narrator is called Christopher Isherwood; in the first of the two books, the Last of Mr. Norris, the narrator’s name is William Bradshaw, Isherwood’s two middle names.) This claim is not quite true: most of the charm of the book is in its humor, which gently exposes the flaws and quirks of its various figures. This includes the narrator (under both names) himself, who perhaps because limited to description often ends up coming across as helplessly naïve. In Mr. Norris this is explicit: the plot revolves around Bradshaw being taken advantage of by Arthur Norris while at the same time priding himself on seeing through Norris’s mannerisms. The humor in that case is played to a great secondary effect for readers keyed into queer subtexts: the book does finally reveal exactly how (1935/39) Bradshaw has been used in relation to Baron Pregnitz (I’ll stay quiet on that point for anyone who would want to read the book), but Isherwood also describes the situation so as to carry the suggestion that Norris has been prostituting Bradshaw to the Baron. Bradshaw, not knowing this, keeps failing to respond to the Baron’s overtures. This is funny, but also irritating for anyone who knows Isherwood himself was gay and the novel autobiographical is thus likely to read his eponymous narrator as excessively coy.
However, having just read that book after A Single Man, I think the phrase “documentary style” could be used differently in regard to Isherwood—and in a way that I frankly found much more wonderful to read, balancing humor and sympathy in a way that The Berlin Stories does not. The excerpt I posted the other day is a good example of the specific documentary voice I mean. It comes out in the minute descriptions of daily routine—the book, following the day of a single man, has the title of a promotional documentary or a pre-film newsreel (essentially advertisements) that would do exactly the same thing, cataloguing the normal, technologically advanced life offered by the suburbs. This is a documentary voice that is already itself a little coy and jocular, even when describing events that are essentially sad.
What is so pleasurable is the way that Isherwood camps up this narrative voice in a way that undercuts suburbia and also gives us a more authentic sympathy for George, its protagonist. First of all, it takes the documentary narrator’s explicit concern in describing characters’ feelings and problems and uses it to approach a character who himself finds suburbia and his fellow suburbanites obnoxious. Whereas the traditional promotional documentary would describe and show the character’s problem only to reveal its solution in modern living, George’s problems don’t get solved. His critiques are not overcome; they remain critiques of suburbia and the oppressive abundance of the nuclear family. And yet he is also shown to be more of a suburbanite than he would like to be, including in his suppressed rage at those around him, which the novel reveals to be not only a product of anger about Jim’s death (although it is in part due to and sometimes about that), but also and even more a nasty side-effect of suburban modernity, including its signature commute:
But does George really hate all these people? Aren’t they themselves merely an excuse for hating? What is George’s hate, then? A stimulant, nothing more; though very bad for him, no doubt. Rage, resentment, spleen—of such is the vitality of middle age. If we say that he is quite crazy at this particular moment, then so, probably, are at least half a dozen others in these many cars around him, all slowing now as the traffic thickens, going downhill, under the bridge, up again past the Union Depot.
The sympathy I think is obvious towards the end of the quote from the previous post: the narrator’s description of a now-demolished morning routine manages to be both detached and intimate in its description of the everyday eroticism that George shared with Jim. The homoeroticism in A Single Man seduces the reader, and when George feels himself attracted to other men in the story yet unable to be direct about it, the effect is much sadder than The Berlin Stories, in which Isherwood sometimes comes across as scornful towards all those missed connections.
All in all, I enjoyed A Single Man much more than I thought I would: while on the surface level an easy read it does very interesting things with form. The Berlin Stories I liked less, though maybe that comes from having read it immediately afterwards. It is a book that likely will most engage people interested in the early-1930s milieu he’s describing. There is some heartbreaking material towards the end with the rise of fascism and its attendant anti-Semitism: Isherwood is at his most interesting when he is less invested in plot and more committed to figuring out the people he describes.
Just as an aside: I have not seen the recent Tom Ford film version of A Single Man (I missed my window at the local art theater), so I have no idea if it preserves any of what I’ve said above. From the trailer I’ve seen I would guess no.
 Warning! There is a misprint in this book—page 96 in the first of the two novellas has been replaced by an extra copy of p. 96 of the second. According to Amazon reviewers the book is supposed to come with an errata sheet, so make sure you get yours…
 Armistead Maupin accounts for this frustration in his introduction to the text by saying that if Isherwood had been more forthright about his narrator’s sexuality, it would have distracted contemporary audiences too much from the portrayals of other outsiders (largely sexual, sometimes gay) in the text. I find this more or less convincing, but frankly it doesn’t make the narrator less irritating—in fact more and more so as the book continues. Another thing, while I’m on complaints: Sally Bowles is completely obnoxious. I want to see Cabaret even less now than I did before reading the book, although I suspect (hope) that in writing the musical they at least got rid of her casual anti-Semitism.
Saturday, May 22, 2010
I read Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964) and liked it so much I’ve gone straight into The Berlin Stories (1935/39). The style of the latter is quite different so far (funnier on the surface, but less innovative), and I’m not sure if I’ll end up posting on them together or separately. In the meantime, here is something delectable from just after the beginning of A Single Man:
Offered without comment, for now.
By the time it has gotten dressed, it has become he; has become already more or less George—though still not the whole George they demand and are prepared to recognize. Those who call him on the phone at this hour of the morning would be bewildered, maybe even scared, if they could realize what this three-quarters-human thing is that they are talking to. But, of course, they never could—its voice’s mimicry of their George is near perfect. Even Charlotte is taken in by it. Only two or three times has she sensed something uncanny and asked, “Geo—are you all right?
He crosses the front room, which he calls his study, and comes down the staircase. The stairs turn a corner; they are narrow and steep. You can touch both handrails with your elbows, and you have to bend your head, even if, like George, you are only five eight. This is a tightly planned little house. He often feels protected by its smallness; there is hardly room enough here to feel lonely.
Think of two people, living together day after day, year after year, in this small place, standing elbow to elbow cooking at the same small stove, squeezing past each other on the narrow stairs, shaving in front of the same small bathroom mirror, constantly jogging, jostling, bumping against each other’s bodies by mistake or on purpose, sensually, aggressively, awkwardly, impatiently, in rage or in love—think what deep though invisible tracks they must leave, everywhere, behind them! The doorway into the kitchen has been built too narrow. Two people in a hurry, with plates of food in their hands, are apt to keep colliding here. And it is here, nearly every morning, that George, having reached the bottom of the stairs, has this sensation of suddenly finding himself on an abrupt, brutally broken off, jagged edge—as though the track had disappeared down a landslide. It is here that he stops short and knows, with a sick newness, almost as though it were for the first time: Jim is dead. Is dead.
He stands quite still, silent, or at most uttering a brief animal grunt, as he waits for the spasm to pass. Then he walks into the kitchen. These morning spasms are too painful to be treated sentimentally. After them, he feels relief, merely. It is like getting over a bad attack of cramp.
Offered without comment, for now.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
World War II has been all over my reading: 2666, Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, and now, though much differently, Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, published posthumously in 1941 but begun several years before. In this novel, the war is in the distance, and only impending: Germany is on the march but England is not yet involved, the news not much more than a disturbing flicker at the back of characters’ minds.
Between the Acts narrates a June day at Pointz Hall, the home of the wealthy Oliver family for the previous hundred years. The Olivers are hosting a pageant play: an event where local villagers perform on an estate for an audience of the wealthy and middle class (and not, although I suspect it comes from a feudal tradition, so much the aristocracy—the Olivers are “new money” usurpers even if they are continuing older traditions) in order to raise funds (in this case, for electric lighting in the church). The play condenses a history of England from its beginnings to the narrative present, featuring within it short comedic pastiches of the drama of various periods. The novel, as you would expect from Woolf, shifts between the thoughts of characters—mostly Giles and Isa Oliver, Giles’s aunt and father, and occasionally visitors and estate workers—and gives us much of the play as it is acted. There are myriad subtle conflicts, but none of them really takes center stage enough to put at the center of a plot synopsis. For what I’m sure are necessary marketing reasons, the back cover of my edition chooses one, but while the choice is justifiable it ultimately misleads you into thinking this will be a novel primarily about a marriage suffering from infidelity. Much more it is a novel thinking through what this kind of event means. Can such a play fulfill any artistic function, or can it only offer a trivial jingoism based on quoting Shakespeare and Congreve? What should it be doing with a war looming around the corner?
I have to say, reading the excerpts of the play, it seems very dull, with the exception of its final bit. The audience is certainly not too excited about it: they seem there more out of a sense of duty (again, the feudal tradition) than out of any interest. Nonetheless, Woolf seems sympathetic in her portrayal of the playwrite/director, Miss La Trobe, and her agony over her production. Miss La Trobe’s most ingenious stroke (indeed, the part most enjoyable to read) is to disturb her audience with the final “modern” portion of the play, offering a Brechtian or otherwise modernist disruption of the fourth wall: first, she lets the audience sit with only themselves, nothing happening onstage, to their increasing discomfort, and then she parades a series of mirrors in front of them to show their reflections. She embarrasses her audience by showing them to be a fragmented set, full of secrets and follies as laughable as any from previous eras—the play ends with some doubt as to whether the form of community it is supposed to coalesce can exist. Miss La Trobe is torn between this vision and a sympathy with her audience, a desire to please and be liked, and as the audience is confronted by the initial silence, she berates herself: “Reality too strong,’ she muttered. ‘Curse ‘em!’ She felt everything they felt. Audiences were the devil. O to write a play without an audience—the play. But here she was fronting her audience. Every second they were slipping the noose. Her little game had gone wrong.” But really, she’s upset because her trick is having just the effect she wanted it to have. Torn between sympathizing with her audience’s misery and wanting to inflict it to force some sort of realization, Miss La Trobe can only think herself a failure once it all ends. It is hard not to sense that Woolf is thinking through some of problems of reception of the sometimes difficult forms with which she and other modernists had confronted audiences—perhaps even this novel’s genre blending, which I found disappointing overall.
Much more enjoyable to read are the prose sections of the novel where Woolf gives us character as only she can. There are clunky moments in word choice, especially in opening pages, but her portrayal of Miss La Trobe’s anxieties over the play, Giles and Isa’s jealousies and desires, and the friendly antagonism of Giles’s elderly father and aunt (he a skeptic, she a believer, both somewhat silly) are wonderful. And, regarding homosexuality, what an antidote after Bolaño! We have Miss La Trobe, whose lesbianism is only briefly suggested though not hard to spot, but also William Dodge, a visitor dragged to the show by a married neighbor, Mrs. Manresa. Here’s William, observing Isa with her husband (whose attentions are on Mrs. Manresa, although William can only speculate):
Hirsute, handsome, virile, the young man in blue jacket and brass buttons, standing in a beam of dusty light, was her husband. And she was his wife. Their relations, as he had noted at lunch, were as people say in novels ‘strained.’ As he had noted at the play, her bare arm had raised itself nervously to her shoulder when she turned—looking for whom? But here he was; and the muscular, the hirsute, the virile plunged him into emotions in which the mind had no share. He forgot how she would have looked against vine leaf in a greenhouse. Only at Giles he looked; and looked and looked. Of whom was he thinking as he stood with his face turned? Not of Isa. Of Mrs. Manresa?
So sympathetically and lustily narrated, more so than either Isa or Giles’s forbidden desires for extramarital affairs, William is one of the most interesting characters here precisely because he is an outsider. Partially this is his homosexuality, which everyone seems to suspect with varying degrees of unspoken support or reproach, but more so it is his class: he’s just a clerk. Indeed, Mrs. Manresa tries to introduce him as an artist to justify bringing him along—a doubly telling choice because it would also be a way of vindicating his homosexuality to the circle of the novel—though he refuses to be misidentified.
This is not close to the first Woolf novel I would recommend to someone: too many dull spots, mostly the play, and the occasional stumble in the prose that makes you remember she had not made final revisions before her death. Yet at moments Woolf’s free indirect discourse gives us her characters’ consciousnesses as beautifully and sympathetically (and sometimes satirically, though hers is a light touch) as any of her fiction. Anyone who has enjoyed her other work will probably find a lot to like here as well.
Saturday, May 15, 2010
Earlier this year when Kenzaburō Ōe’s new novel Changeling appeared I read several reviews that piqued my interest, and then, coming across it in the local library, I read the first few pages and knew that it needed to be on my “to read” list. But the books I wound up buying for now were two used book store finds, the four-novella collection Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (trans. John Nathan, 1977) and A Quiet Life (trans. Kunioki Yanagishita & William Wetheral, 1996). I’ve just finished the first of the two, and it makes me wonder how I haven’t read any of his work before. This first novella in particular, The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away, is astonishing, so much so that it may diminish the other three in comparison.
The Day features a delusional narrator in a hospital for a treatable ailment that he nonetheless insists is terminal cancer, recounting a past he refuses to see clearly to be recorded by the “acting executor of the will.” What we read is this record, and its formally ambitious combination of surrealism, indirection, temporal shifts, and interruptions pays off in humor and pathos—the only comparison I can think of in American or English literature is Faulkner. Indeed, like Quentin Compson, the narrator of this story is desperately clinging to an ethical code that belongs to a lost world (the antebellum South for QC, Japan before and during WWII for Ōe’s narrator). It is hard to know how much to say about the plot here before I slide into ruining surprises: this is a story saturated by the narrator’s obsession with events that do not become entirely clear until late in the story. Loosely, he seeks to recount an “official version” of what he calls his Happy Days, a short period during World War II before he lost his father, but this is a story much more about living with guilt and resentment than it is about nostalgia. Much of the narrator’s anger and energy is directed at a mother he blames for an inability to commit suicide; his zeal for his imaginary impending death is really for what he imagines will be his victory over her:
However, even at times like these, he was able to enjoy imagining dreamily the clamor and bustle when the announcement of death would send all the systems of his body, alive now and metabolizing tirelessly, racing one another to be the first to decompose. At the end of the tape which the acting executor of the will would play when he had entered a coma he wanted to record the following words to his mother, who would be coming alone from the house in the valley: Please make sure you stay to observe my body decomposing; if possible I would like you to observe even my putrefied and swollen insides burst my stomach and bubble out as gas and muddy liquid. But it was not easy to deliver such lines without disagreeable masochistic overtones; besides, if the state of his stomach should oblige him to belch just as he began to record and his voice should falter or tremble, he could imagine carrying his chagrin with him right into the world of the dead, so he merely assembled these sentences in his silent head.
Most of the humor here is dark: it comes from the absurdity and excess of his anger, his grotesque imagination, and the impotence in his fury that keeps him from enacting his schemes (best not to make that tape if it might catch an offhand belch). And yes, the narrator speaks about himself in third-person, much as he will only refer to his father as “a certain party”—another tic he blames on his mother.
Ōe’s other stories in this volume are much more straightforward, whether narrated in first or third-person. In Prize Stock, the narrator recalls a turning-point in his youth when an African-American pilot is captured and held in a small parochial village. The story that gives the collection its name describes a man obsessed with his dead father and his mentally disabled son—both relationships disintegrating after a traumatic encounter with a polar bear at the zoo. And Aghwee the Sky Monster tells the story of a man hired to be the companion of a composer who has lost his will to go on, having become obsessed with a giant baby he imagines to come down to him from the sky. This last story is the most unsatisfying—partially because the narrator seems so distant from his own experiences, but more so because the climax, which collapses that distance, is not especially effective.
According to the translator’s introduction and other reviews/blogs I have read, Ōe writes mostly autobiographically, and in these stories you can see him reworking the same set of ideas or problems in different scenarios. The first and third stories have protagonists obsessed with absent fathers who were lost in very similar (with some variation in detail) circumstances. The third and fourth both involve protagonists forced to choose at their sons’ births whether to let them die or save them with a surgery that will leave them mentally disabled—they make different choices, but both of them become obsessed with the outcome. (And it has to be said that the attitude toward people with disabilities here is somewhat trapped in its time, even considering the fathers’ love for their sons, dead and living alike.)
I find myself grappling the most with Prize Stock, largely because I know so little about Japanese cultural contexts for thinking about race. If this story was published by an American or even just Western author, I would know right where to put it: treatment of black men as animals, obsession with the size of their penises, ugh ugh ugh. This is a coming-of-age story where the protagonist and his friends are excited at the spectacle of the prisoner, who becomes their friend only to become dangerous again. It is not entirely clear to me how much of the exoticism here comes from the prisoner’s general American foreignness, and how much comes from his blackness. And either way it is also not clear to me at the end of this story that the prisoner-as-animal attitude is at all repudiated. The narrator’s youthful illusions are destroyed, but the “reality” he comes to face is that the prisoner was, after all, a dangerous wild animal rather than a nice pet. Not much to show in the way of growth.
Still, I can’t emphasize enough how engrossing I found The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away. It evades the problems of the other stories and rewards the reader for finding the rhythm of its stranger prose, and it makes me eager to read more Kenzaburō Ōe.
Saturday, May 8, 2010
I ended the last post promising one more on 2666 but after thinking about it I’m not sure I have much left to say that makes for some sort of grand exit. Here are some scatter-shot departing thoughts.
1) As I said before, I found the ending a little too neat and satisfying, but perhaps one way in which that is not true is the overall portrait of Reiter/Archimbolde. He does not exactly turn out to be the heroic writer figure some may have wanted him to be earlier. He is as mired in day-to-day reality as everyone else. Yet, I was also left unsure as to how culpable he is supposed to be, and I remain unsure of how far overall we can take the connection of the final section to the previous one. As I commented at David’s blog, what do we make of his murder of Sammer? Vigilante justice seems fairly easy and without consequence here as opposed to Santa Teresa.
2) Ok, here’s the anticlimax. I mentioned when the conversation about homophobia was getting started that there was one later instance where the book seemed to show a different kind of reaction to same-sex innuendo. It comes when Archimbolde reacquaints himself with the baroness and, in post-coital conversation, she jokes that “it was clear Archimbolde had never fucked Entrescu” (814), and if he had then his viewpoint on destiny would be changed. It is not notable because homosexuality is embraced (I really can’t imagine that happening in this book), but because the allusion to same-sex sex doesn’t spark a panicked, defensive machismo. Archimbolde simply keeps on with the conversation. Of course there is not much here, but in some ways that is the point—even given that she is saying he obviously hadn’t fucked Entrescu, in the context of this novel it is nearly miraculous he doesn’t freak out or react with disgust at the idea that he might. Maybe this is just because, since he is fucking her, he knows he doesn’t have to “justify” himself to her. In any case, the novel’s treatment of homosexuality has certainly been the most disappointing, and maddening, part about it. I grant I’m not an expert on Mexico, but I found the arguments that the fourth section was registering some culturally specific use of the terms “faggot” and “maricón” to be unconvincing; indeed, much of the reasoning meant to support that argument seemed to me to end up undermining it (Jeff suggests this as well with further explanation in his follow-up comment to his original post, which I highly recommend).
3) Can I just say I’m glad I found a copy of the three-volume edition of 2666 before they went out of print? It was nice not to have to haul around the whole thing. Plus the individual covers were a nice touch.
4) I wonder if the issue of excessive closure in the final part isn’t related to what David has discussed in terms of the possible biographical reading of the novel as an extended reflection on death. But then, having not read most of Bolaño’s work, I don’t have much earlier in his career with which I can compare it.
5) One thing I found remarkable about the final section was the representation of WWII from the perspective of a German soldier. As much as anything, this remarkability is due to my still far too limited reading of literature in translation, but the descriptions of the war, particularly Reiter’s attempts at getting shot, reminded me both of the English and American literary response to WWI and the response in American fiction to WWII. Vonnegut and Heller were especially useful points of comparison regarding the overall tragic absurdity. Yet, since Reiter is fighting for the Germans, it also has a different valence.
6) Participating in the group read was a great way to start book blogging. Thanks to those who ran it and who participated in it in various ways. It has been a great conversation to follow.
7) Enough is enough, though! It is time for this blog to comment on something besides 2666.
Sunday, May 2, 2010
(Fair warning: 2666 ending spoilers directly ahead if you aren’t done yet.)
In a joke that couldn’t happen to a more deserving jerk, Klaus Haas’s giant turned out not to be so apocalyptic after all. I mean, really, Archimbolde gets to Santa Teresa and…busts Klaus out of jail and goes on the lam? Brings down the wrath of God? What could possibly come of this (besides leading the critics to Santa Teresa)? Archimbolde is not exactly going to have a lot of pull with the authorities. Yet, despite that unfinished business, I found the end of 2666 disappointing for a reason with which I’m sure most others will disagree: too much closure. It isn’t enough for Archimbolde to go to Santa Teresa (validating the critics), or even to have him meet Klaus Haas. Haas has to be Archimbolde’s nephew.
I think the root of the significance in this book to me had been its bagginess, the sense of all these interlaced events and people in the world that, nonetheless, resisted any sense of system. It seems to be a novel about all these intangible threads holding its various parts together, and about a set of crimes interconnected yet not reducible to one cause, so that to come upon an ending that feels so concrete in its closure (not for the crimes, of course, but for Archimbolde’s story) feels like a bit of a betrayal of the novel’s erstwhile truth.
At least one person I can’t recall has mentioned a sense of connection to Thomas Pynchon in 2666 and there was something of this for me too. The Part About the Critics sets up this big hunt for Archimbolde that does not come out to much, but it also sets us as readers up to take over for the critics in their search, and the Table of Contents here tantalizingly offers as an endpoint The Part About Archimbolde. Yet as the novel went on, it became less and less about Archimbolde, more and more about things the critics did not want to or could not see. The desire for Archimbolde’s presence—the presence of the author, of genius—is mocked by the movement of the book up to the final section. What this novel really needed, it seemed to me, was the kind of Pynchonian ending where loose ends aren’t tied up, the search is left unfinished. To give us Archimbolde in the flesh, a traditional nineteenth-century novel of development at the end of this longer beast, is to in some sense validate the critics so scorned in the first part of the book.
Obviously Archimbolde was not going to remain entirely a mystery: a whole section on him lay ahead. My feeling on this at first was that, by the time you get to this last part, Archimbolde seems so beside the point that reading his bildungsroman, something the critics would probably claw one another’s eyes out to be the first to do, would be a huge disappointment. Instead, it’s just the little reward for making it so far that most would like it to be. Yes, there are a lot of unpleasant parts to Archimbolde’s life, and the Santa Teresa crimes don’t fade entirely as the section keeps us thinking about possible thematic ties to the Holocaust, but at the end of it all this is a pretty delectable story, a scoop of ice cream to top off a meal. I think I would have preferred it if he didn’t serve dessert this time around.
I think I have one 2666 post left in me—and one that may actually undercut what I’ve said here, since the end may in fact raise a number of questions despite the feeling of closure. In the meantime, a question: I’ve now read The Savage Detectives and 2666. It may be a bit down the line, but I plan to read some more Bolaño. What should be next?