Sunday, January 30, 2011

Writers on TV

I was going to try to keep pop culture out of this blog, and here I am going back on the resolution only ten posts in, but I'm sneaking this one in as a “writing” topic. For several years I've been trying my damnedest to stay out of the pop culture loop, simply because there are too many good/culturally “important” things to check out – bands, TV shows – and not enough time to do it at all, let alone stay current. So I resign myself to being an average of five years behind on bands and three seasons on TV shows. If the hype is big enough, I'll hear about it and finally give in and see what all the fuss is about; if the show or band is hip enough I'll hear about it from a friend (thus I found my way to Florence and the Machine and Community). Making no active effort to stay hip and current whatsoever therefore acts as a protective, semi-arbitrary filter keeping me from being too overwhelmed from all of this brilliant art clamouring for my fractured attention.

Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

Well dammit, we can't, not even with everything faster and faster and more convenient all the time – Pater outlined the problem over a century ago, and late capitalist consumerism and online “connectedness” have only made the dilemma of secular relativism (or relativist secularism) worse: there is nothing but material pleasure (of which the aesthetic is the most spiritual kind), and we will simply never be able to take in even a portion of it before death is here. And in the meantime, the urgency – the anxiety – to do so only intensifies. (No joke: I saw a parenting book, written by a teacher, the other day, on how to encourage kids to read, in which an elementary school student was quoted – approvingly, I guess – as saying, “I feel sorry for all of those books waiting for me to read them.”)

But still, occasionally, you can discover things not by hype or buzz or recommendation but by chance – by googling around, as once in an ancient times you might have found things by wandering the library and judging books by their covers or even by flipping through the channels or watching, zombie-like, anything that came on TV. Like the time I discovered The Talking Heads by watching infomercials all night with a friend – early David Byrne looking very sexy indeed, all sweaty and angular and unnaturally intense while wailing “Psycho killer – qu'est-ce que c'est?” In this case what I found was HBO's Bored to Death, and I found it by reading Heather Havrilesky columns on Salon (which I used to read), trying, without caring very much, to find out what she had to say about Community, which I read somewhere else that she liked.

Community is a pretty good show, as far as recent American sitcoms go. It's consistently fairly clever, fun to watch with a friend. Bored to Death, however, is in a different league. After trying out a few episodes, I naturally looked up the cast and creator on Wikipedia. Jonathan Ames sounds like a sub-par David Sedaris... and I'm not even interested in reading Sedaris. But why do writers of middling talent so often make superb TV writers? Is it because we expect less from the medium, so the merest hint of “literary” talent and intelligence gets us inordinately excited? Or maybe it's that there really is a difference between art and entertainment and a place in our lives for both, but neither novelists nor TV writers seem to know how to entertain anymore (setting art completely aside) – so when someone's doing a good job of it, we enjoy and appreciate it?

Anyway, Bored to Death hits a lot of my sweet spots. It's about as New York Jewish (of my fantasies) as it's possible to get, with its writer main character and all of the smart, rapid-fire psychoanalytic wit that presumes you've actually read Freud and Jung. And all of the other contemporary Jewish hipster touchstones are in place: the pot-smoking and the bearish bearded comic writer Ray seem to be out of Judd Apatow movie; the comic books and “Jew out of water” premise of a Jewish detective comic-like hero appear to be a page torn from Michael Chabon. But this is what TV, that most effortlessly pomo of mediums, does so well: it takes every major cultural reference (or just the smart ones) of the past decade or so and, by jumbling them together in a knowing pastiche somehow makes them seem so much fucking cooler than they did originally. (BBC's Life on Mars worked much the same way.)

The New York of Bored to Death is the New York I want to live in, not the bizarrely Jew-free New York of Mad Men (especially bizarrely given that the late 50s/early 60s was arguably the peak era of New York Jewish creativity, from Nichols and May and Woody Allen to Dylan and Ginsberg, so to create a show set in that time and place that focuses on WASPs seems downright perverse). But – four episodes into the first season, at least – that's just the attractive setting. I don't have a clue what the show is actually about: it doesn't always stick to its premise (which is good because I'm not sure how many wacky cases they can come up with) or to satirizing the New York literary world. Luckily, I'm too entertained to care what  it's about, or whether it knows. There seems to be an underlying theme of the difficulty of relationships: the main character, “Jonathan Ames,” can't seem to get into one (or get any action) after his girlfriend dumps him in the first episode; whereas his best friend is in a “successful” long-term relationship that seems like even worse torture. The show also situates itself firmly in the comedic “loserland” where 30somethings have felt most comfortable for several decades now (see the superb British sitcoms Black Books and Peep Show), and somehow we believe that these two semi-successful artists are the losers they claim to be even though they're a lot more successful than we are. Maybe it's because they're so miserable and directionless, like the rest of us; but at the same time, to our entertainment and probably theirs as well, over-articulate about it.

The New Yorker's ambivalent review of the show is so personally nasty in tone it sounds like it was written by an ex-girlfriend of Ames's, or the best friend of an ex-girlfriend – which seems appropriate for the little community of the New York literary scene. Or maybe it's just Nancy Franklin's version of irony. At any rate, she rightly praises Ted Danson's performance as Jonathan's womanizing magazine editor boss. Up there with, and maybe surpassing, Chevy Chase's performance on Community as a recovery of a comedian fondly remembered from one's childhood but who's now “too old for TV,” Danson nearly explodes the screen with his charisma (and chiseled good looks, gone too long from the small screen and even more impressive with the shock of white hair). The new role draws on certain aspects of Sam from Cheers, namely the womanizing and alcoholism; in other ways it's a total rejection of Sam's lunkheadedness and blue collar down-to-earthness. Danson is so strongly associated with that role, who knew he could be totally convincing as a cultured, philosophizing, high-powered magazine editor who makes casual reference to Proust in the context of discussing his fixation on a woman's armpit hair? (Sounds more like Freud, once again, than Proust to me, though.)

Franklin also singles out the stand-out exchange from the episodes I've watched so far. It's a bold bit of writing that requires an absolutely deft comic touch by the performer, and Jason Schartzmann (consistently adorable as “Ames”) delivers. Jim Jarmusch tells Jonathan that his novel was “Dark, funny, perverted, beautiful,” and adds (deadpan), “You must really suffer from the terrifying clarity of your vision.” To which Jonathan replies, “Thank you. I do suffer.” I was reminded, somehow, of side-splitting deadpan moments in Preston Sturges, like William Demarest putting a coat-brush up to his face to illustrate the ease of disguise, barking a bunch of nonsense German, and telling Henry Fonda, “Guess who I am.” At the same time I was autobiographically reminded of some of the absurd things people have said to me in my various brushes with a literary career, like the program director at theatre school who said, shooting me a penetrating look, when I fell into silence while sitting in his office, “What are you thinking, Elise?” As though the dark and fascinating contents of my writer's mind would spill out at this signal. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I was thinking about how I couldn't wait for the day to end so I could go to my apartment and watch Jarvis Cocker videos on YouTube.

Franklin thinks that Jonathan replies “in all seriousness,” but I think Schartzmann's delivery is too comically ingenious to be pinned down that easily. What's funny about Jonathan's reply is that it's mere politeness: the Romantic idea of the suffering artist reduced to party small-talk in the course of a business deal. The deadpan delivery of the performers may resemble Sturges, but the reduction of such a grand idea to a trivial pleasantry is Wildean. It's not exactly that we don't believe Jonathan could write a novel that's “dark, funny, perverted, beautiful.” The satire involved is not so direct as to mock the idea that Jonathan can write or that a compliment of this sort could ever be sincere or accurate, however blurb-like the phrasing. It's that this ability attributed to him has nothing whatsoever to do with his daily life, which involves trying to get laid, and his boss trying to get laid, and his best friend trying to get laid by his girlfriend, and trying to get a movie deal, and standing around at parties, and getting stoned and drinking and avoiding writing, whether shit assignments or serious novels, and, of course, talking and talking and talking. (And now and then a detective case.) Where does one fit suffering into that day? It goes on – we believe it, of Jonathan or ourselves – but we don't see it happening. The scene may have changed from the French provinces to the New York literary world, but it's the same modern ennui, stifling to the Romantic expressiveness that's the stuff of art, or one (and still the most familiar) idea of art. Only now the ennui has spread from the ignorant provinces to the cultural centers, as we continue to believe in a dream of art that we can't connect to the mundane selves we've learned to be through media like TV... although the way was paved for its mundanity by the realist novel, including Madame Bovary....

Let's Not Pretend

Private, Public... Blog

The other day I ran into a former professor of mine and we briefly chatted about what we were reading. He hadn't heard of Bolano, so I mentioned that I'd also been reading Sebald, who, he said, left him ambivalent. “Let's not pretend,” said my English professor acquaintance, a specialist in 20th century literature with a special fondness for Ulysses, and I could see the formalist academic mind working in the space of his Jamesian hesitation, “that this is a novel.” I agreed. (We were both talking about The Rings of Saturn, in case other Sebald is more novel-like.) “And let's not pretend,” I added, “that this is some kind of radical new form. It's just a guy talking about whatever comes into his intelligent head.”

Our exchange got me thinking about the kind of tone or approach that a literary blog should have – not an amateur imitation of literary criticism or reviewing (although anyone who wants to do those things is welcome), not even necessarily an “alternative press” stance. A blog is, essentially, private. Not, obviously, in the sense that it is not intended to be shared with anyone. My communication with the professor was “private” – a casual, candid chat about what we thought about certain authors of current high reputation. Much like I might engage in with a friend in an e-mail exchange. Which is not to say that neither of us would be willing to make these assertions public, although we would want to back them up with some theory and some literary-historical context, if, for example, we wanted to publish an essay on the topic.

The “privacy” of a blog is opposed not to sharing (or publication), but to “the public world” of professional writing and professional opinion, whether as academics or critics. The public world is guided by certain conventions, forms and social constraints. Circumspection, rather than candidness, is the rule; and even critics and academics have a private persona in which they may playfully use the vernacular and a casual tone, and a public persona in which they stick strictly to a professional self-presentation, with a different tone and vocabulary. I'll never forget when I asked a professor friend of mine (not a former professor but a friend who happened to be a professor, so the exchange was even less formal) what he thought of Portrait of a Lady, which I was reading for the first time and with which I was enraptured. He replied, “Isabel Archer makes me puke.”

It's a little like that exchange between the candid vulgarian errand boy, occupying the lowest social rung in the film, and the doctor, the only real “professional” we see, in Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner. The doctor gives a complicated explanation of what's wrong with Pepi's boss, employing a lot of obfuscating professional jargon, and then asks Pepi what his position at the shop is, to which Pepi responds in kind. When he's finished, the doctor realizes with astonishment, “You mean you're an errand boy?” “Doctor,” Pepi replies, looking at the man levelly, “did I call you a pill-pusher?”

Sontag v Blog

If blogs are going to change the face of literary criticism, it won't be by imitating critics, but rather by allowing criticism to take on more of a personal and informal tone. This is a matter of tone, mind, not content: blogger-critics should still write engaging, intelligent, grammatical prose, and the best will have real insights into literature to offer. But I think we can afford to be a little more fallible, a little more anecdotal. “I'm just a girl/guy with a blog.”

The great literary critics (as distinguished, a bit artificially, from scholars for the moment) of the 20th century, every one of them American, carefully crafted personas for themselves: T. S. Eliot (the most gloriously, outrageously imperious of them all), Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag. These personas were, first and foremost, infallible. Can you imagine Susan Sontag ever having a thought that wasn't expressed in the same densely intellectual terms as her essays? Even she couldn't – take a look at her posthumously published journals. A "private" journal doesn't necessarily entail a private persona when you're writing with the thought (however faint) of eventual publication in the back of your mind, just as a "public" journal (i.e. a blog) doesn't necessarily entail a public persona if you're writing more or less off the top of your head with little or nothing at stake.

To write and to be an intellectual was once, recently, to craft a persona that had nothing in common with one's mundane private self; that was, perhaps, precisely an escape from it; to craft a self that was smarter, sharper, more elegant and eloquent. I dearly love all of these critics as much for their personas – or their variations on the critic-persona they bequeathed to us – as for their prose and ideas, but it seems to me that as a medium, the blog is far too informal to support such persona-building, which requires an absolute separation between public and private self. Even when a blog is not meant to be about the person writing it, it retains certain characteristics in common with its online “sister forms,” the journal or diary. Professional critics affiliated with respectable print journals often maintain a blog to say, “Hey – look at me, I'm a real person! I can talk like a normal person and express casual, personal opinions that are not necessarily my considered professional opinion!” The blogging form is inherently, well, non-pretentious. Even if you're as pretentious as me.

Can you picture Sontag with a blog? In a blogging world we could never have had a Sontag or a Trilling; they would have had to democratically puncture their elitist personas. And that would have been a shame. But we did have them, issuing from the world of 20th century literary journalism; and now we have a different model, which, while no doubt throwing up its own celebrities (and more of them), may never allow for the level of intellectual celebrity of the great 20th century American critics, simply because there are too many of us. But there's nothing wrong with changing the face of intellectual inquiry en masse. 

Of course there are those even among young writers who are still quite dedicated to the idea of the elitist critical/intellectual persona, like Zadie Smith, who claims to use "heavily punctuated, fully expressive, standard English sentences" even when she texts (see, I shit you not, footnote 4 of her review of that Facebook movie). To which I've got to ask, like, Zadie, why? At best, it destroys the point of the medium, which is convenience; at worst, it's a violation of the manners appropriate to the medium, like self-absorbed Tess Harding* wearing her fashionable hat to a baseball game and blocking the view of the guy behind her. But even Tess is sharing peanuts with him in no time, and we love her for it, not so much because she's shown that she can be a "regular gal" (even if the screenwriters and/or director thought that was the point) as because she's clever enough to quickly figure out, and take wonder in, a whole new fascinating social language. In fact, the social language of baseball viewing is the real game of interest in the scene, in a way that reminds me of Cavell's comments on games and Wittgenstein's language games.

The Erotic Blog

Speaking of Sontag's published journals, in one entry she talks about the difficulty of motivating herself to keep a journal because the motivation is narcissistic rather than the desire to make "an erotic gift of one's intellect." She contrasts journal-keeping not with publication, however, but with speech, which "is social + erotic + has more incentive in the feared and desired expectations of the other than in the perfectly knowable + less mysterious + compelling self demands." (Hey lookit, Susan uses shorthand in her journal like a texter, WTF?) Which raises the question for me of whether blogging, with its link (sometimes direct and sometimes tenuous) to social networking, isn't more similar to the act of speech than to the act of writing. The act of writing, even with (traditional) publication in mind, which is to say the intention of finding an audience, may be more narcissistic (which explains why it's so damn hard to finish anything) than the act of blogging, with the pragmatic certainty that you will find readers immediately, even if the numbers are tiny (they will come upon you by accident, they will click on you on impulse, they will read you out of inertia), and even if they do not, in fact, interact with you (but, unlike traditional publication, they could).

Which would certainly stand the standard complaints about the "narcissism" of blogging on their head. 

*My reference is to all-American people's elitist Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Of "Incidental" Contributors to Literary Meaning

A friend pointed out to me that there was no need to cite a friend (or other expert) on the topic of the sci-fi-ness of the title 2666. Also, that although the novel/author may properly be described as "vaguely sci-fi," the sci-fi-ity of the title is not in question. I suppose what I'd meant to indicate by citing my friend is that I would not have thought anything about the genre of the title (if titles have genres), even if I couldn't help but notice it. In a work as vaguely sci-fi as 2666, a specifically sci-fi title contributes something (I couldn't tell you the exact amount) to the overall sci-fi-ness of the work.

What caught my eye, or imagination, a lot more than the title, actually, was the cover of the Farrar, Straus, and Giroux edition, depicting Gustave Moreau's Jupiter and Semele - one of the cleverest acts of upscale book marketing I've seen. I am normally quite adept at resisting the attempts of publishers to appeal to overeducated tastes with their beautiful and elegant cover designs and image choices. The truth is, though, that without the Moreau cover, I may never have bought or read 2666 despite the strong recommendation of a friend (the same friend who debates my use of "vaguely" above). In the first place, there's simply the striking visual impact of that busy painting on a giant trade paperback. Second, there's the "insider" appeal of throwing out a reference that assumes the reader will have a working knowledge of art as well as literary "taste." Third (and it is last and least, at least for me), there's the thematic and stylistic connection (and if I recall correctly, Bolano does namecheck Moreau in the book, but not a specific painting). The connotations of the Moreau painting include decadence and a crowded Mannerist complexity that not all readers/gazers will appreciate; a certain obscurity of meaning combined with obscure menace and undercurrents of sexual violence.

All of these connotations are, of course, an appropriate preparation for the reading experience. But it goes further. Did the person or team who chose this cover also consider the connotation that Semele is the mother of Dionysus - referenced in The Savage Detectives? On the apocalyptic connotations of the title - did the person consider that they were creating a link with Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" (where rape, prophesy and fate are connected as in 2666)?

Hey - in the internet age, this is easy to find out! Charlotte Strick is the cover designer, and the choice of the Moreau painting (19th century, not 18th century as the journal has it!), "apocalyptic and kind of insane," came from her editor (the FSG editor, I assume?), Lorin Stein. However, the edition discussed in this interview features three volumes with three art-referencing covers. I had one hardcore po-mogasm (wow, horrifying coinage) when I learned that the second cover featured the work of Cy Twombly - brilliant! Even more obscure - the artist and the meanings of his paintings! Oh, the taste involved! The exclusivity! (I'm not joking about my excitement, although I'm being sarcastic at my own expense.)

Twombly - introduced to me by the same friend who reprimanded me for my vague use of "vaguely." Perhaps this info will make it up to him, if he didn't know it already. But all in all, it's probably time to open this blog to comments, not that I'm expecting a flood, or for that matter trickle. Maybe an occasional tickle.

So, what does Twombly contribute to "The Part About the Crimes" (weird choice)? Discuss! My instinct is to say that we've gone a little bit too far in taste, and something is being masked here - but, I am almost wholly ignorant of Twombly as a context, or as much more than a name.

And what does this sort of packaging do to our interpretation not just of the book, but of Bolano as an author? Personally, I find Bolano, even in 2666, barely experimental. He's idiosyncratic, like Jane Bowles or Robert Walser transferred from the brain of a miniaturist to the brain of a maximalist; at times he's surrealist, at other times Lynchean (a particular kind of dark surrealism for which there's no other word). And he likes really long sentences, but they're not particularly syntactically complex - on the contrary, they're usually comma-spliced together. Yet the packaging seems to want to flatter the reader: to beckon: you with the references, this stuff is difficult to understand, but you've got the intelligence and cultural preparation for it. In contrast, I look at a Twombly and I don't have a clue what he's after or what I'm supposed to think (sometimes I think: "pretty," but that's as far as it goes). But maybe that just goes to show that I'm less comfortable with abstract expressionism than I am with narrative (literary or cinematic) surrealism.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Of Punk Fairies, Millennial Fiction and Two Dead Authors

Are Roberto Bolano and Stieg Larsson strange millennial literary doppelgangers? Two foreign-language authors who have become North American literary sensations, they were born in 1953 and 1954 respectively, started writing fiction late, and each died at the age of 50, leaving behind the works that made their fame, Larsson's bestselling triology and Bolano's 900-page masterpiece, and fans entranced by the “mystery” of their lives and ouevres. I haven't discovered such an intriguing, unlikely generational connection since I learned through idle googling, thanks to Wikipedia, that Jerry Lewis and Allen Ginsberg were born four months apart, in 1926, in Newark.

I haven't read Larsson's “Millennium Trilogy” and have no intention of doing so, but this New Yorker article by Joan Acocella caught me up on it and Larsson. Even if Larsson obligingly turned himself into an enigma by dropping dead of a heart attack (he subsisted on hamburgers and cigarettes, according to Acocella) and the publishing industry decided to cash in on his posthumous moment of fame by coming out with books about him, it's still quite unusual to see this much attention devoted to an author of commercial fiction, unless they're Stephen King. Larsson, it would seem, and as Acocella's article suggests, captured the flavour of the millennium – much like his warmer climate-twin, Bolano.

What does millennial fiction look like? Well, it looks about exactly the way we might expect it to. Larsson and Bolano, in the “Millennium Trilogy” and 2666, are overtly feminist authors who are obsessed with rape and other horrific crimes against women to such an extent that one might suspect that their graphic interest in the subject has a prurient aspect for both author and reader. (2666 could easily – if somewhat clumsily – have been called Men Who Hate Women, the Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) Larsson writes detective crime fiction; Bolano incorporates this pulp genre into his postmodern pastische style. Both authors have a grisly fascination not only with violent crimes against women but with anal rape (either gender). It just goes to show how, as Leslie Fielder asserted in Love and Death in the American Novel, high art has more in common with trash than it does with the middlebrow (the latter the real enemy of art, according to Fiedler). And if, as Acocella suggests, Larsson's turn-of-the-millennium technological up-to-dateness is a strong part of the trilogy's appeal, Bolano's quirky interest in the occult (UFOs and other New Agery) infuses 2666 (which, as a sci-fi fan friend pointed out to me, has a vaguely sci-fi title), in particular, with a dark and eerie portentousness that's perfect for millennial representation. Which, incidentally, hasn't changed much since Ziggy Stardust in the 70s and Blade Runner in the 80s. (Bolano was a Philip K. Dick fan.)

Of course Larsson's novels also have more fashionable trappings of up-to-dateness, notably the tattoos and piercings of his heroine, whom Larsson has transported from the cult genre of steampunk (or cyberpunk, or whatever – I don't follow them) into the thriller mainstream. And it's about time, since the average middle-class North American teenage girl shares Lisbeth's fashion sense nowadays, and its absence from mainstream fiction (literary or commercial) suggests just how conservative mainstream writers are. And unnecessarily conservative, because I can tell you as a sometime bookstore clerk that the readers most excited by the trilogy are women over 55. But then, we're talking about puritan millennial North America, where the mere fact that Bolano and Larsson smoked makes them seem like daring, dangerous radicals in a way that their leftist politics never could, and where forbidden vicarious thrills are the rule. Hell, even Norman Mailer quit smoking before he died (which he goes on about at some length in, I believe, On God)!

But it was the nonliterary Swede, not the Latin American genius, who created a memorable female protagonist, thus defying the rule of 20th century fiction (at least Anglo-American fiction and fiction popular in this part of the world) by male authors that I lamented in passing in an earlier post. One can lay it at the doorstep of Proust, Joyce, and Kafka, perhaps, that as the novel became increasingly subjective, protagonist and author became more closely aligned, and male authors moved away from occupying the perspective of women; or perhaps we should blame creative writing courses and their tiresome “write what you know” dictum. What's perhaps a bit depressing is that even in cutting-edge 21st century fiction, the female detective thriller protagonist is the same sexy, sensational, “futuristic” anomaly that she was when Wilkie Collins published The Woman in White in 1860, inspiring male readers to propose marriage to his anti-Victorian heroine Marian Halcombe.

I have to confess I was puzzled by Acocella's complaint about the “anti-masculinist” qualities of the male protagonist, Mikail. (Her description of him immediately put me in mind of John Simm's character, the problematic 21st century male par excellence, in the recent BBC detective crime/sci-fi series Life on Mars.) Perhaps there's a problem with going to anti-masculinist extremes in the portrayal of a male protagonist, but Acocella doesn't specify what those problems are, which makes it seem like a personal distaste. Her description of Mikail's lack of interest in sex intrigued me, dangling the possibility that the kinky Swedish author has psychological peculiarities to which formula thrillers are immune, and which enliven Wilkie Collins's work. One readily believes, looking at photos of the elfin, willowy Larsson that he had what Acocella calls "a sprite - a punk fairy" inside him dying to get out and wreak havoc.

Who knows – Larsson might even be a new Wilkie Collins, a bestselling thriller author who'll stand the test of time but only very gradually be accepted as a classic. I'll never know, since I'm unlikely to read his trilogy due to my allergy to bad prose of either the commercial fiction or literary fiction variety. “Good prose” (e.g. Faulkner) often dates; whereas bad prose (Collins, who even in his best work, such as The Women in White, The Moonstone and Armadale, is often floridly melodramatic) may age well, because as the decades pass one becomes less concerned about the author getting everything right and simply willing to accept the pleasures that have given lasting works their reputation (in Collins's case, gloriously eccentric, bewilderingly androgynous characters, Gothic melodrama thrills and roller coaster plots).

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Bildungsroman, Modernity and Youth

As I mentioned, I'm reading Franco Moretti's The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture. In fact, I'm speeding through it, although I've decided to skip the chapter on Stendhal and Pushkin because I don't want The Red and the Black spoilered for me. (It's on my “to read immediately list” with about 200 other titles, none of which are Eugene Onegin.) Unlike the soporifically dry Benjamin (I look forward to your comments – when I open the posts), Moretti's a good read, although a disconcerting one by the standards of “proper” Anglo-American academic prose. He writes forcefully and breathlessly (however unlikely that combination seems), with liberal italics for emphasis, scattered sentence fragments, and sentences that span sub-sections with the help of ellipses. All of these mannerisms aid the impression of arguments rushing along even though the individual paragraphs are densely packed with references to theorists, philosophers and historians and tangles of complex assumptions that Moretti is evidently in too much of a hurry to spell out. Hence I often feel like I'm missing the finer points, although the basic outline is clear, and all of it is fascinating. The only other Marxist critic I've read at any length (I'm not going to count Terry Eagleton) is Arnold Hauser, who, like Moretti, combines staggering erudition with a passionate and personal critical voice. Not, it would seem either, impassioned about Marxism as a rigid system so much as about (social) history and art and their interpenetration. His references to and quotations from Lukacs's Theory of the Novel actually make me want to brave another Marxist literary theorist, not least because Lukacs's opposition of soul and convention so strongly resembles the Freudian pleasure principle/reality principle I've been thinking of for some time as a basis on which to found a theory of the 19th century social novel.

The Way of the World was published just three years before Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae, and Moretti's take on what the French Revolution did to Western society is so similar to Paglia's (which for all I know may be a commonplace among historians) that the premise of The Way of the World was something I'd already accepted way, way back, with the first strong intellectual impressions that were made on me, when I read SP at 17: that in the wake of the Revolution, the bourgeois subject discovered that she feared freedom (with its attendant isolation and burden of self-direction) as much as she desired it; and that with the Revolution and the full inauguration into modernity, a new value is set on youth (as the “symbol” of modernity) while maturity is pushed to the periphery. The main difference is one of terminology: for Paglia, the Revolution inaugurates an era of Romanticism from which we've never escaped (even though we went through Late Romanticism and decadence at the end of the 19th century, as SP goes on to recount, so I'm not sure, or I've forgotten, how that works); while for Moretti Paglia's “Romantic” era is the era of bourgeois modernity.

Ironically, Paglia valorizes the pre-modern ideal of maturity in Sexual Personae (for instance, when she approves of Rosalind's renunciation of her androgyne self for marriage at the end of As You Like It, speculating that otherwise Rosalind would turn into something very much like Moretti's lost soul of an eternally restless modern subject) without ever giving an example of it; instead, Sexual Personae celebrates the decadent in art in all its immature glory of sex and violence, turning its back on what Paglia perceives as the Protestant high seriousness of realism and Modernism. Moretti, meanwhile, devotes himself to exposing the classical Bildungsroman (represented by Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship and Pride and Prejudice) as a beautiful deception that attempts to heal the social rift created by the Revolution by imagining an alternative in which the bourgeois subject and the pre-revolutionary authority of the aristocracy achieve an harmonious union. In what amounts to an opposite perspective on Rosalind's renunciation of androgyny and Arden, Moretti argues that the bourgeois subject is persuaded by this vision of a harmonious homeland within society to renounce her individuality; but of course, this vision of social authority is of what social authority ought to be, not what it is, and so the Bildungsroman amounts to a deception – one that soothes the bourgeois reader into reconciling herself to what, after all, she cannot change, not so much to prevent social unrest as to prevent internal despair. Which is, I guess, a long way of saying that the Austen of Pride and Prejudice and the Goethe of Wilhelm Meister are conservative.

But – don't we think that there is such a thing as maturity? And as the capitalist era goes on and on, and youth seems only to grow more central to its self-symbolization, with a new, even more violent outbreak of emphasis on it in the 1960s “social revolution” – do we not think that our youths drag on and on and become ever more of a...drag, perhaps even ending, or becoming a parody, at some point, but with no new mode of equal or greater value that we can move into? I suppose Moretti isn't saying that “maturity is just a trick to make you give up the pleasures, ideals and radicalism of youth”; rather, he's saying that in the classical Bildungsroman, youth represents the impulses of modernity and maturity represents authority; so symbolically, individualism is given up and authority accepted when (in the narrative) youth passes into maturity. However, symbol and “reality” may be, counter-intuitively, interrelated. With the loss of maturity as a cultural symbol of value and the rise of youth to symbolic prominence, we seem to no longer know how to mature; and with that loss, we may feel that it is a valuable thing, after all – and not a mere trick of authority. Or rather – because what we do most deeply believe is that maturity is no more than a trick of authority, and cannot conceive it as anything else, anything of positive content – for that reason we do not know how to mature, even as we are uneasy with our subjectively unending (yet objectively, distressingly, depleting) youth.

Perhaps I'm just showing my admittedly extremely superficial understanding of Marxism, but what's curious is that Moretti appears to be on the side of the bourgeois subject and capitalism here. Or rather, he creates an opposition within modernity between the bourgeois subject, on the one hand, with his capitalist-inspired vision of individuality and progress and mobility without end, and the genuine sources of capitalist power, which do not coincide with him and with which he must come to terms. Or else, presumably, he would revolt against them, as he revolted against the pre-capitalist sources of power; and yet, at the same time, he yearns for social cohesion and authority. And this, perhaps, is the paradox of capitalism for Moretti (or for Marxism, for all I know): on the one hand, the belief in individualism; on the other, the acceptance of authority and tolerance of inequality.

But there are other models for the progress from youth to maturity, in any case, than the acceptance of authority. There is also the progress from innocence – or in any case, from illusion – to experience, or maturity as the gaining of (harsh) knowledge, which Moretti looks at in his chapter on Balzac. In the first case, one renounces one's autonomy and becomes “mature” by accepting that wisdom is located outside oneself (in authority); in the second case, one loses one's illusions and becomes mature by oneself becoming wise (or in any case, gaining knowledge/experience). Except, as Moretti points out, Lucien de Rubempre manages to lose his illusions, and his youth, without gaining wisdom; wisdom is instead located in worldly figures like Jacques Collins and in the omnivorous, totally objective narrative perspective itself. The only figure of wisdom, or model for wisdom, in Lost Illusions is the snake in the garden.

Since the models of the progress from youth to maturity/wisdom above obviously have religious precedents (the Protestant relationship to authority as clerical authority and as divine authority; the Biblical Fall), it's evident that Moretti's historical/sociological reading needs supplementation: the Reformation as well as the Revolution informs Austen, and Balzac is drawing on some pretty old fables. It reminds me of the day I suddenly figured out what was wrong with both Freudianism and Marxism (while I was looking at a book on Marxism), and went running to tell a friend who was nearby. “For Freud – EVERYTHING is about sex! For Marx – EVERYTHING is about economics! But... NOTHING is about ONE THING!!” I guess I'm not a monist.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Roberto Bolano, Desperation, the Novel, and Morrissey

Bolano, Desperation, the Novel, and Morrissey

In one way Roberto Bolano reminds me, in The Savage Detectives, of what I've read about, or seem to remember I've read about, a Germanic tradition of authors from Goethe to Mann. (I attempted Werner as a teenager and Wilhelm Meister in my early 20s, and was so stunningly bored by both that I gave up after a few pages. I'll be attempting Wilhelm Meister again soon, having a current interest in both the picaresque and the Bildungsroman. As for Mann, I read Death in Venice and “Tonio Kroger” as a teenager; I didn't understand a word of the former, although I liked the movie; the latter, however, hit home with my teenage self. Do you think Sontag, Trilling, or Wood has literary skeletons in their closet like this – important novels they tried to tackle at a young age and couldn't? Or are they all too serious and self-punitively assiduous? Then there were the ones that bored me so much I couldn't get past the first few paragraphs, including The Waves and 100 Years of Solitude.)

Bolano reminds me of this tradition whenever his characters go on rants (recounted in dialogue or expressed in monologue) about the nature of literature, the sort of unapologetic didactic intrusion of the author's aesthetic and intellectual ideas into a fictional narrative that I associate, rightly or wrongly, with Wilhelm Meister and The Magic Mountain. While we're speaking of boring novels, I could also mention here Marius the Epicurean – I actually got through the entire first volume of that as research for my second plan for an MA thesis, prompting the following discussion with my supervisor:

Me: Next time we meet I should probably have something to show you to prove that I've done some work...

Supervisor: Yes. “Describe the plot of Marius the Epicurean.”

Me: Plot?

Supervisor: LOLOLOL.

These are the jokes in academia, let's face it. (AND I STILL DON'T KNOW WHAT HAPPENS TO MARIUS. No spoilers, please.)

And, following on from Marius, there is also Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, although Stephen Dedalus' abstract and abstruse aesthetic theory is so different in tone, let alone content, from the impassioned serio-comical rants of Bolano's poets and publishers that Joyce makes a distant point of comparison at best.

There is, first, the gay visceral realist Ernesto San Epifanio's long speech (interspersed with the shouted interjections of his listeners) essentially classifying all poets as “faggots” (of whom he approves) or “queers” (the bourgeois), with many sub-categories whose precise definition is obscure. Reproducing the tour de force section in full, Bobby Byrd rather brilliantly compares San Epifanio's rant to Mercutio's Queen Mab speech. 'Nuff said.

Then there's the rant about “desperate books,” in which Bolano describes the type of novel he is writing and anticipates objections to it through a proxy-recounting of the aspirations of Bolano stand-in Arturo Belano and his friend and co-founder of visceral realism, Ulises Lima. I was reminded, first off, of an interview with Morrissey in which he said that the quality he most prized in a singer was “desperation.” Morrissey's career actually makes a good illustration of exactly what Bolano is talking about in this section. Quim's rant essentially reduces to the observation that there are books for adolescents and “immature” adults and books for mature adults (i.e. the bourgeois), which makes yet another way to oppositionally categorize types of novels. Only the examples given of “novels for the mature” are not literary fiction but rather masterpieces such as In Search of Lost Time, The Magic Mountain, Les Miserables and War and Peace. In this monologue Bolano makes it clear that he is not only writing a novel about adolescents and bohemians but a novel for them (if there's a difference; if there can be a novel on this subject written for mature adults), or I suppose for anyone who, regardless of their age and outward circumstances, still finds that this notion of “desperation,” so acute in adolescence, speaks to them. Nothing about The Savage Detectives makes me particularly think it's a book for Morrissey, but the young Morrissey did identify with Werther, mentioned by Quim when he describes desperate readers as “the kind of fucking idiot (pardon my language) who committed suicide after reading Werther.” The kind of fucking idiot, in other words, who takes literature seriously enough to die for it in a type of Romantic reaction that we much more commonly associate nowadays with the relationship between adolescents and their music – for example (pre-eminently, perhaps still), The Smiths. Because only an idiot would care that much. Which – via suicide and adolescence – somehow brings us back to Romeo and Juliet (in the previous paragraph – keep up!). Because the sorts of passions described in The Savage Detectives (for both literature and lovers) have those same qualities of intensity and naivety that are found in Shakespeare's play, which many critics consider rather bad by the Bard's standards, but you can't argue with its durability, or in fact its pop culture status ever since West Side Story adapted it to the new youth culture of the 1960s. And this risking badness seems to me here, as in 2666, to be the aesthetic stance that Bolano so thrillingly occupies by embracing a naivety of both viewpoint and effect (for example, in the eschewing of “literary” prose that has received wide comment in our “literary fiction” era). It's the kind of fiction that makes you go (unless you're so desperate to appear sophisticated that you can't question, even to yourself, whether the trendy, “difficult” foreign-language author is The Real Thing after all), “By the standards of everything I've been taught good fiction is, this can't be.” Unless you're me, of course. Because that pretty much defines my ideal book.

But the problem for the desperate reader is, of course, that he has only two options: he either becomes so desperate that (also a problem for the writer who writes for him) he stops reading (meaning, presumably, he is homeless, insane, or both); or he is cured, becomes bourgeois, and reads calm, mature novels – although, with his breadth of learning and taste, he reads desperate novels too, but they bore him, as rightly they should. Desperation, in other words, cannot be a permanent life choice (even if, as long as one lives within it, one feels certain that it is the only perspective from which truth can be accessed, the only uncompromised position): it either leads to obliteration or ends. It is an unoccupiable position that nevertheless this book, and its author, and perhaps its readers (who aren't bored), attempt to occupy.

By the way, has anyone (or everyone) considered yet that Arturo Belano may be named after K's assistant Artur, given the distinct resemblance of the eternally-popping-up Belano and Lima to the assistants towards the end of the first section? Just a thought.

In Search of New Terms for the Novel Debate

Modernism, Literary Fiction, and the Opposition of Popular and Serious

After the novel, it happens to the other popular genres of the bourgeois era: film and pop music, too, pass through their Modernism, and afterwards separate camps are established, and the genre can never again be unproblematically popular and “art” at once. The Madame Bovary of film in this regard, the movie that made people think that made doubters believe that film could be an art form, was, of course, Citizen Kane. Never mind that great European films had already been made, like The Rules of the Game and The Passion of Joan of Arc; never mind that the French New Wave critics would argue that classical Hollywood cinema was already art. With the end of the studio era in the 1950s and the advent of European Modernism in the 1960s, American movies became divided between the “mainstream” and the “indie,” and by the 1980s no one serious film lover could approve of popular movies unless they were willing to cast their lot with the Spielberg and Cameron spectacle interpretation of great filmmaking.

Likewise with “popular” music. As the story of rock goes, first there was Elvis, then The Beatles and Dylan; Dylan's example encouraged The Beatles to step up their game, and by the time of Sgt. Pepper, critics were quite willing to take pop music seriously. But it wasn't for another ten years that pop began to approach its Modernism. First, there was the decadence (which also preceded literary Modernism) of The Velvet Underground and Bowie, followed by punk (=Dada), and finally the full-blown Modernism of New Wave, immediately followed, again, by the division into “indie” and “mainstream” camps. If anything the division was more pronounced in pop music, because although some New Wave bands (notably Blondie) merged punk and dance, indie rock developed in opposition to the 1980s dance ethos: The Smiths and REM vs. Madonna and Prince. Thus, for the average popular music fan, there were only two main "genres" to worry about (before rap and hip-hop came along): indie and dance.

Quickly, however, at least in the case of music after the Nirvana explosion, “indie” became no more than a marketing label; not a designator of quality, let alone authenticity. It's possible to apply this sort of opposition to literature as well: suggest that the most interesting contemporary literature is published by indie publishers rather than the big-name media corporations, as Edmond Caldwell has done at his provocative blog Contra James Wood. There's a difference, though. Many people act as though “indie” is a genre of film, and many more as though it's a genre of music, whereas few readers, even “serious” ones, believe that “indie literature” is a genre. They do, however, often hold this belief about “literary fiction,” although literary fiction is as much of an empty marketing term and signifier of quality, or at least of a certain set of values, as “indie music.”

The Terms of the Debate

The terms of the debate over the “death” or future of the novel tend to go something like this: either literary fiction (meaning all serious fiction) is opposed to popular or commercial fiction (meaning all trash); or literary fiction (meaning the old-fashioned/social/plot-and-characters novel) is opposed to postmodern fiction; or literary fiction (back to meaning all serious fiction) is opposed to genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mystery, and the like, which can be defended as effective on their own terms or attacked as formulaic). Specific “serious” authors may then set out to heal the rift between the social novel and the postmodern novel, like Franzen, and in the process try to make meaningful, challenging fiction popular again, like it was in the 19th century, when everybody read because there was no technology (although Henry James was already complaining about the kind of trash that was popular, written – sound familiar? – by “lady scribblers,” and about a century before that, Austen was making fun of Twilight readers in Northanger Abbey); or they may try to make modern genre fiction and other, older  forms of popular fiction, such as the picaresque, viable again by bringing their "literary" concerns to it.

By “the death of the novel,” we usually mean one of three things (and we may not always be sure which): that great novels can no longer be written; that no one cares about reading; or that “the novel itself” can no longer be written. The first meaning relies on the idea that the novel exhausted itself as art form; Camilla Paglia conveniently and cheerfully places this event at just the time film was coming into being (the High Modernism of the 1920s), so the 20th century didn't have to lack for a great and popular art form even for a second. That no one cares about reading has a simple enough explanation: the competition from the various forms of media from film and radio through TV and the internet. In the 19th century, there was nothing for the middle class to do in its leisure time except read; today, with our busier, servant-free lives, the same person who would have read trash in the 19th century now watches TV. This argument has common sense going for it, but it's hardly foolproof, since if it were strictly true, no one would read trash anymore: they'd just watch TV and leave reading to the scholars.

As for the idea that “the novel itself” can no longer be written: this is where things get complicated, and a little more interesting. Because it depends what you mean by “the novel,” and it also depends on where you want to place the blame. Did those radical Modernists and mischievous postmodernists render the “traditional” novel non-viable by making the illusion of character, heck, the illusion of Western selfhood itself, unacceptable to sophisticated readers? Or – to tell the same story from a different perspective – did writers abandon the average reader (and thus contribute to the decline in reading – presuming it's true – or, anyway, the decline in the cultural centrality of reading) by abandoning character, plot, and/or the depiction of contemporary life? Which leads to projects like Franzen's and Chabon's. Did Flaubert screw everything up (as Leslie Fiedler has suggested) by trying to turn into “art” what was “intended” (the “real “novel, that is) as a vulgar form of mass entertainment? Or – my own preferred explanation – have social conditions changed so radically since the 19th century that even if we wanted to return to the “traditional” (pre-Modernist) novel, whatever that means, it would be impossible?

Well, somebody's writing something called “literary fiction,” if we take this for the moment to mean neither the postmodernist novel nor some kind of postmodern/traditional synthesis, but something closer to what Zadie Smith called "lyrical Realism" in opposing it to postmodern experiment. In this meaning, “literary fiction” is a sort of super-refined type of literature, in which, following Flaubert, prose style is elevated over plot. W. G. Sebald is one of the more sophisticated exemplars of this view, opposing the “carefully composed page of prose” to “the mechanisms of the novel” in an interview on Bookworm. Sebald cites a 19th century Germanic tradition, however, rather than Flaubert, a popular but poor example, since Madame Bovary has a gripping plot and a carefully observed heroine, even if she's lacking in the rich interiority often presumed characteristic of the 19th century novel protagonist. Flaubert just meant that style, not subject, determined whether a work of fiction was “art,” not that you needed to abandon social or psychological observation or a dramatic plot (far from it).

“Literary fiction,” however, insofar as it exists as a genre, does emphasize prose style over plot, with the result that the average reader may find it slow-moving, not to say impenetrable if the prose has too high a concentration of metaphors (and, as is often the case, the writer doesn't care, or may not know know, that they're not making sense), and face chastisement for not liking “challenging” or “artistic” literature and not appreciating “beautiful” prose. And then we get the division between the two types of writers: “real” writers, who are interested in language and prose; and the vulgar storymongers, who are interested in plot and narrative. Unlike plot, characters seem to do okay in literary fiction, if it doesn't get too postmodern (whence Smith's "lyrical Realism"). An obvious solution would be to write a novel with characters, plot and good prose, which is what I take the Franzens and Ian McEwans (and Byatts) to be doing, but the effect is somehow diluting, as if in reading one were to go: “well-drawn” characters and reader emotional investment, check; nice sentences, check; a real page-turner, check; serious investigation of serious stuff – it's all there, this is officially great! Instead of being carried away, involved, lost, stunned.

The Bourgeoisie and the Radicals

But more than mere aesthetics are at stake, for the “novel debate” also carries ideological connotations. If you read postmodern fiction, it's clearly because you're a radical, while those who advocate for the traditional novel and its even partial recovery are obviously bourgeois reactionaries. In consequence, famous apologists for the traditional novel, such as James Wood, may feel the need to prove the breadth of their taste (that is, their hipster cred), even in unseemly rants on lowly litblogs. Conversely, supporters of the traditional novel may feel that they are aligning themselves with humanist values, such as the belief in individual personality and the practice of empathy through “caring” about characters and their fates. This is what seems to be new to the contemporary debate: the idea that by advocating one type of novel rather than another, one is advocating a set of values not due to the subject of the novels, but rather to their form.

The problem with the radicalism of most postmodern fiction (my knowledge of which is based largely on summaries and reviews, such as Smith's of Tom McCarthy's Remainder in "Two Paths"; such descriptions do not encourage me to buy the book, especially when they're rendered in Smith's lyrical Realist prose) - I was saying, the problem is that so-called radical fiction of recent decades is not nearly radical enough: often it seems that it draws from now-hackneyed sources that were already well-tamed for us when we learned them in even the most backwater universities (self-reflexivity, deconstruction of the self), not to mention since postmodernism went pop. As for the traditional novel, it has to work really, really hard to seem better than TV, which has been a major aesthetic competitor, as well as a competitor for attention, ever since it went through its own Modernism (I'm making this up, but I'd point to the early 90s and shows like The Simpsons and Seinfeld). Because context is everything, and what the serious reader admires in a “well-written” TV show will disappoint as shallow, crass kitsch in a supposedly serious novel.

(I make an exception for comedy. The sitcom is still essentially Menander, and therefore compares quite well to the history of stage comedy, and can achieve unqualified “greatness” in these terms.)

Once we get to this point of the debate, we've backed ourselves into a corner where we start asking: if TV is so darn good, and “everybody already knows” all of the tricks of the postmodern novel, do we need the novel at all, or has it been outmoded by the forms introduced by 20th century technology, as the aristocratic forms, poetry and tragedy, were by the novel (itself made possible by printing technology)?

Yet this question seems ridiculous, inadequate, and so we have to back up and interrogate the terms of the debate that led us into this cul-de-sac. What's required, at the very least, is a more thorough investigation of the manifold forms of the European and Anglo-American novel and the social roles what we lump together under the term “the novel” has served. Currently I'm reading Franco Moretti's The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture, and in future posts I will return to this question, “What is the novel?”, as an open-ended investigation which, by revealing what the novel has been, may help to illuminate what it can be.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Unknown Henry James, Part 1: James and the Woman's Picture

Henry James may be my favourite novelist; he is also the novelist I recognize the least from the criticism of his works. The first mistake critics tend to make is to think that James can be categorized as a realist, social novelist, or novelist of manners, and the second is to think that it's possible or desirable to make complete sense of what's going on in his late novels. If you reduce The Golden Bowl, for instance, to the bare bones of plot floating in the thick soup of the author's consciousness and Baroque style, you have given a very misleading impression of the experience of reading the novel. It would be like trying to give a description of Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible (or for that matter, any Sternberg-Dietrich Hollywood film) by telling someone the plot.

As Camille Paglia noted in her illuminating bashing of James in Sexual Personae, James is a melodramatist. That, at any rate, is the place to begin with him. To be more precise, the plots, situations, characters types and sensibility of James's novels anticipate the studio-era Hollywood melodrama sub-genre called the woman's picture to a greater degree than any other “classic” novels I've read. (It's possible that 19th century popular trash anticipates it to an even greater degree, but since no one reads it now, one wouldn't know.) At other points, as I may address in later posts of my “James series,” James also anticipates the sensibility of 1940s film noir, the decade when noir and the woman's picture frequently crossed over (examples include Curtis Bernhardt's Possessed, with Joan Crawford, and Gilda, with Rita Hayworth). We might be tempted, therefore, to anachronistically pronounce James a “classic Hollywood” type of melodramatist, except that one can equally say that there is much crossover with European melodramas of the same era of higher critical regard, such as Bresson's Ladies of the Bois de Bologne and Renoir's The Rules of the Game. In the absence of much criticism that reflects my experience of James, I've had to turn to film to get my aesthetic bearings with this author; not just 1930s and 40s Hollywood and European film, but also late Hitchcock and certain works of European Modernism. (Based on the Frygian cross-connections between James, the woman's picture, and noir, I once thought of writing my MA thesis on this topic, but unfortunately it grew into an overarching theory of melodrama, which was far too ambitious for an MA thesis, embracing the novel, theatre, film, television and radio.)

Early James is simply a woman's picture type of novelist, while late James adds many further complications of style while sticking to his preferred sensibility. I'll start with The Portrait of a Lady (spoilers alert!), the first James novel I read (I believe in the original rather than the New York edition, which ices the early works with the late style), when I was around the same age as the heroine, and still my favourite due to my memories of that revelatory experience. Portrait is also the novel with which James criticism has helped me the most, particularly the theories about the two psychologically mysterious decisions that constitute Isabel's tragedy: her marriage to Gilbert Osmond and her decision to return to him. The initial “hook” of the novel, however, for the female reader apt to identify with Isabel or the male reader apt to (as Harold Bloom implies he did) fall in love with her, is the situation of a pretty young woman beset by suitors whom she must choose between. Cinematic parallels include the woman's picture/noir Laura, directed by Otto Preminger and starring Gene Tierney, and the ludicrous and enjoyable 1945 British melodrama The Seventh Veil, starring a sexily repressed and sadistic James Mason as the missing link between Osmond, the creepy aesthete, and the Byronic Gothic hero. (Wilkie Collins's Count Fosco, fat, charismatic, effete, vitalistic, and all-around Napoleanic, is another variant.) As frequently occurs in 40s women's pictures, the heroine of The Seventh Veil just about has a nervous breakdown (actually, in this film she has a literal one) trying to figure out whom she really loves with all of these men bothering her (as Molly Haskell humorously describes in From Reverence to Rape), while Laura combines the benevolent, asexual Ralph Touchett and the sinister, controlling Osmond in a single figure (Clifton Webb's marvellous Waldo Lydecker), pits them against the Caspar Goodwood-like “earthy” police detective, relegates the fortune hunter-with-a-secret mistress to a minor position (even though suitor and mistress are played by the wonderfully sleazy Vincent Price and Judith Anderson, who improbably make each other sexy), and connects the dots between James's “portrait” and the Gothic tradition of the attractions of objet d'art-like dead women, which will become much more literal in James's later oeuvre.

Meanwhile, the “aristocratic plot” of The Rules of the Game reproduces the plot of Portrait almost exactly, although coming in a bit later in the story: a naive wife discovers that her more worldly husband is having an affair with a lover from before their marriage and, in reckless reaction, vacillates between her husband and two men who are in love with her, a rash, dazzling man of action and an old friend. Renoir even casts himself in the role of the asexual friend who knows his love is hopeless, just as critics have suspected that Isabel's cousin, the invalid Ralph, is James's self-representation. Another strain of Portrait, however, is illuminated by Ladies of the Bois de Bologne, whose plot also turns on the sinister arrangement of a marriage by a “dark woman” type of ex-mistress, although in this case the dupe is the husband rather than the wife. If James were concerned in Portrait with social satire or portraiture, as Renoir is in Game, it might be reasonable to call him a novelist of manners, but his concerns are much closer to Bresson's moral/spiritual ones with the ideas of freedom, control and manipulation of a soul's destiny by another human being, betrayal, and the nature of the mysterious union or contract called marriage. Bresson's freedom-obsessed, ethereal gamine heroine, however, is a fallen woman/hooker with a (weak) heart of gold, which could never occur in James, who belongs strictly to the puritan Anglo-American novel tradition. Instead, Isabel Archer is a fierce Artemis whose murky, narcissistic sexuality seems to correspond to what we know of James's own from his life and work.

If James is concerned with bigger, more abstract themes than the classic Hollywood filmmakers, he's more focused on personality than the intellectual European melodramatists. Finally, James doesn't care about anything in Portrait except Isabel herself and boring into her psychology. In the typical woman's picture, the heroine is not of much psychological interest; her romantic options represent the conflicts of archetypal puritan female psychology, as Haskell has argued, which allows the female viewer to identify with her. She may choose between (asexual) security and (sexy but risky) adventure, as Dietrich does in Morocco; or, even more starkly, between the security of asexuality and the danger to the puritan female of sex itself (Ashley Wilkes vs. Rhett Butler). Isabel faces Scarlett O'Hara's options in her choice between Osmond and Goodwood (even as the real “struggle for her soul” takes place between Osmond and Ralph, as Bloom has observed with great intuition for the stakes of the woman's picture), but it is the fact that Isabel's final choice is counter-intuitive that accounts for the novel's classic status: by this means, James shrewdly makes his heroine into a Hamlet-like insoluble enigma.

The woman's picture classically ends in some kind of self-sacrifice, which is another major point of connection between its sensibility and James's. Sometimes this self-sacrifice is equated with death, which is in turn equated with love: at the end of Morocco, for instance, when Dietrich finally surrenders to her heart and follows the man she loves through the desert; or at the end of Jezebel, when Bette Davis finally wins back her man (in a highly-charged exchange of melodramatic “bargaining dialogue” similar to the ending of Wings of the Dove), or at least his limp body, sitting guard over it pieta-style as they journey towards the island of lepers. Other times the sacrifice is of love, as when at the end of Now, Voyager, Davis renounces her affair with a married man so that she can keep the substitute of her relationship with his young daughter. Such moments bring the woman's picture to its pitch of emotion and to the cusp of tragedy (or the female version thereof), in which orgasm, tears and catharsis are one. They also, of course, make involved viewers rail against the unfairness of the heroine's destiny. The ever-practical Davis solved this problem for herself in relation to her role as Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager by saying that as far as she was concerned, Charlotte would marry her obvious soul mate, (Ralph-like) Dr. Jacquith, as soon as she got over the unavailable Jerry. Likewise, for many viewers of Gone With the Wind, it's perfectly obvious that once Scarlett has recovered through contact with the red earth of Tara, she will win Rhett back and they'll live happily ever after. And if Portrait of the Lady were a popular classic with innocent, engaged readers, rather than bored, clueless students and lofty academics, it might be perfectly obvious that Caspar will still persuade Isabel to run away with him and live happily ever after. (Only Richardson is cruel enough to completely deprive fans of the “happily ever after” fantasy that is the flipside of romantic tragedy by killing Clarissa - even Bronte lets the reader keep some hope that Cathy and Heathcliff will be reunited in hell. But then, for Richardson pre-marital rape was more of an intractable philosophical obstacle to marriage than it apparently was for the Clarissa-and-Lovelace shippers.)

Davis's Charlotte Vale, however, has a very good reason for renouncing Jerry, one that, in fact, faintly echoes “The Turn of the Screw”: so that his daughter will never know about their affair, believe that she's being used by Charlotte, or otherwise be “tainted” by their adult indiscretions. We can easily believe that Charlotte is in love with Jerry, or “thinks she is” (in the way we often talk about illicit relationships), and that she could fall in love with Jacquith and have a happy and satisfying marriage of equals with him. Similarly, everyone knows that Scarlett is “really” in love with Rhett and is the only person not to know it, in a sort of kitsch melodrama heightening of Elizabeth Bennet's predicament. Isabel is not in love with anyone, neither Osmond nor Goodwood (although Ralph may be her soul mate), and, caught between the Scylla of the metaphorical death represented by Osmond's life-denying “form” and the Charybdis of the metaphorical death represented by Goodwood's consciousness-drowning sexuality, she rejects sex, which is somehow shocking to the Anglo-American sensibility in representation, since our puritan attitude to sex has magically charged it with being the only feasible solution to all problems (or at least the problem of not having/wanting it). It's Isabel's perverse sex-rejecting death-wish that makes her unique among novel heroines, or at least those in the realist/social/psychological novel tradition that is James's starting point, and it will find its culmination in James's other great heroine, Milly Theale.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Savage Tenderness

It's a rare thing for a novel, no matter how great, and no matter how enjoyable, to provide the reader with pure pleasure. As a teenager I experienced this a few times: with Les Liaisons dangereuses, Pride and Prejudice, and The Trial. Not until my late 20s and early 30s did I experience something close to it again: with The Woman in White, Huckleberry Finn, and Swann's Way. All six books are, obviously, extremely different, and many other novels at the top of my “favourites” list (The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, Two Serious Ladies, Pere Goriot, Sister Carrie) do not fall under this category; not to mention the many great novels that I'm glad I read but that intermittently bored me (Middlemarch, Bleak House, Clarissa) or irritated or upset me (Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary) in the reading.

I was beginning to think that I would never fully have this reading experience of untrammelled pleasure again, that it was something reserved for a young person newly discovering literature that could only be faintly glimpsed by the jaded older reader, when I finally started reading The Savage Detectives. In a couple of days I'm already on page 78, which is speed-reading for this casualty of the internet/ADD era, and there has not been a single sentence that doesn't fill me with delight, wonder, and a cozy, grateful sense of the author's spiritual generosity. This is the first time I've ever read a book that makes me fantasize about buying copies to give, not to everyone I know, but to several select friends and acquaintances who, I think, would also love its ingenuous vision of youthful intellectual bohemia (or vision of ingenuous youthful intellectual bohemia?), and I'd do it if I weren't broke. When I recently read Bolano's posthumously published 2666, I felt fairly certain I was reading a masterpiece, and entirely certain I was reading something brilliant, strange, wild and wonderful that made the 900ish pages pass without any moments of boredom, though not always without effort. In the case of The Savage Detectives, I couldn't care less if it's a masterpiece or not. The pleasure of the reading experience has obliterated those nagging, anxious questions of evaluation that can cloud the reading of contemporary literature.

What's remarkable is just how different The Savage Detectives and 2666 are, although they have the same translator, Natasha Wimmer. 2666 is a dark work, to say the least, which at times seems to have been written by a Lynchian surrealist psychotic. Although Bolano's interest in whores, pimps, sex and sadomasochism are already evident not even 100 pages into The Savage Detectives, its mood is, nonetheless, bright, light, exuberant, and infused with a warm glow of innocence. Bolano has suggested that The Savage Detectives is his homage to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but the voice of Bolano's teenage initial narrator, Juan Garcia Madero, isn't nearly as dark and melancholic as Huck Finn's is from the start of Twain's novel. In fact it's hard to say just what allows the reader to be interested in such a naive protagonist. Maybe it's just his Bildungsroman blankness, onto which the reader can project his or her own teenage experiences, but Bolano renders that blankness with tenderness rather than harsh irony. Harold Bloom once made a fantastic distinction by saying that Jane Austen's relationship to her characters is one of ironic love rather than loving irony; I think he was right, but Bolano's attitude to Madero is the more familiar loving irony, which works fine for his novel.

Something I have not seen mentioned in reviews and blog posts about The Savage Detectives is its feminism. I'm one of those cranky female readers who gets tired of the way that later 20th century Anglo-American novels (not to mention films, especially independent films, but that's for another blog) by men almost always feature male protagonists and give the male perspective, in contrast to the habits of male novelists of the 19th century, who frequently centered their works on heroines. I was braced from what I'd read and heard for The Savage Detectives to be a “boy's” novel about a “boy's” world, and so it is, but Bolano's literary utopianism effortlessly includes women (who are strong, in control, and sexually, intellectually and politically active) and homosexuals without ever incurring political correctness (the endless descriptions of blow jobs take care of that). The women in The Savage Detectives may be fantasies (so, for that matter, are the men), but they're fantasies that a female reader can enjoy as well, like so many late 20th century Mexican Baby Millamonts.

I have heard, however, that the formal experimentation to come causes the book to lag and even ruins it for some, so perhaps my initial reading experience will not be my final one. I am not a reviewer, and hence I feel free to check back with more gushing as I go along or with any observations that might merit a post. I've decided, incidentally, to lock posts against comments until I've written a few of them and have a sense of what this blog is supposed to be and until any readers, besides the half-dozen friends who might check in, can respond to a body of ideas rather than isolated flippancies.