Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #67 Heart of Darkness

Sometimes you can make a cheese sandwich, pick up a book, and change the way you think about life.  More often, you can make two, open the computer, and read Postcards from Yo Momma.  The former infinitely rare and precious experience is preferred, but it's impossible to manufacture.  You cannot prime yourself for epiphany, even if the the book is pithy, the mustard piquant, and you've arranged yourself prettily, nay, beatifically, in a sunbeam. I have tried it many times with Heart of Darkness, which is a work that feels like it should impart some kind of something.  Every time I open the book I think, like a young man bound for the colonies, "My god, I've really started something."  And every time I open the book I raise a crust to Joseph Conrad the polyglot, who in this novel gives a fine demonstration of the fact that some brains are different than others.  Some brains take words in any language and make minions of them (others make mincemeat).  Conrad, in a third language, wrote one of the most epic beginnings ever.  I challenge someone to find a second paragraph that portends such greatness: The Sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway.  In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas, sharply peaked with gleams of varnished sprits.  A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness.  The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth. It keeps going like this, all his words perfectly arranged, the narrative artfully made. And yet in spite of Conrad's virtuosity, by the middle of this slim but theme-sodden novel, I usually find myself musing on the accomplishments of Martin Sheen, wishing I hadn't made so many unhelpful underlines in my copy, wondering if the first sandwich feels lonely in my gullet, and realizing I missed the part (again) that explains who the Pilgrims are.  This last read, I sent myself into a paroxysm of giggles by imagining one of the fellows on deck cutting Marlow off halfway with an emphatic cry of "Boooo-ring." I actually did have an epiphany this last time, but it was not the kind I had been trying for. I did not glean arcane truths and readerly thrills from the novel. No, I realized that my feeling about Heart of Darkness is not hate, but something akin to contempt, the contempt bred of school-day familiarity. Unless things have changed considerably in the last few years, if you go to college and study literature, you will encounter this novel.  You will see it in a class that builds it up, then you will see it in a class that tears it down.  You will talk about the Other, and the Intended, and the Horror.  You will make much of colonial ineptitude and Conrad's startling frankness re: it.  You will read Chinua Achebe (then several years later you will read him again and marvel at how fucked up the world, and you, must have been to necessitate the writing of an essay pointing out that Conrad was racist).  At the end of it all, you will do a group project on Apocalypse Now. Heart of Darkness is not bad or boring, but it bores me, badly.  I almost feel guilty getting bored, because I think Conrad had significant things to say.  And he had a sense of humor, a grim one, my favorite kind.  He knew, for example, that many colonials were idiots and that Marlow was an inspired windbag.  But I get bored, and think how I can pare the story down to just a few words: "White man oppresses black man, is oppressed in turn by jungle mysteries." I will never regret studying literature.  Reading novels is fundamental to my particular brand of personhood, and so it's important to understand how they work and why they do and what they tell us about the world.  And studying Heart of Darkness is important and I'm glad I did it.  But I suspect there's nothing like prolonged study to turn some books stale for some people.  Indeed my copy of Heart of Darkness, one of those scholarly critical editions, is an object lesson in making novels loathsome by burdening them with six different levels of pointless annotations and distracting hieroglyphics, and entombing them in essays that total several hundred pages longer than the novel itself. Of course, as we are told by the lovable old salt, "it's queer how out of touch with truth women are! They live in a world of their own and there had never been anything like it and never can be."   I know intellectually, in my fragile bird brain, that Heart of Darkness is a Great Work.  But I don't know it in my own, less inscrutable heart.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #80 Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite novels.  I am prone to the use of superlatives, fits of florid enthusiasm, and weeping, so I have dozens of favorite novels, songs, and movies.  I also have a lot of mortal enemies (mostly from the parking lot) and several best friends.  Both my cats are my favorite.  There are so many things to love (and loathe).  Let's say that I am catholic with my affections. The people in Brideshead Revisited are also Catholic with their affections, but for them it means something different, namely that they are crazy.  Or not crazy, exactly, but capable of nuances of feeling, infinitely tied to a class and place and time, that seem no longer to be part of anyone's emotional spectrum.  These feelings do not register on the brute psychic seismographs of today; they require some exquisite baroque device, ancient but extraordinarily sensitive, sitting under a drop cloth in a crumbling country estate.  I think this is why we must read novels; we need them to exercise emotional muscles rendered vestigial by work, or poverty, or Real Housewives of Bachelor Island. For all that I cannot quite grasp the inevitability of breaking up with one's lover because, ostensibly, my lapsed-Catholic father crossed himself upon his deathbed and I inherited an enormous mansion and all of the servants and furniture, I find so much to love in Waugh's superb style that it doesn't matter.  It's the same way with A Room With A View--I don't understand why everyone gets so mad when they run off at the end, but I find it a delicious, uplifting read nonetheless. In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh, relaxing some of the savage facetiousness of his earlier novels, allows himself to get emotional, without sacrificing a pungent sardonicism.  I've read Decline and Fall and A Handful or Dust, and I recall them as being comic but brittle; Brideshead Revisited has laughs, but is full of a sincerity which palpitates my overwrought heart.  To view the progression in his oeuvre in modern terms, Waugh is like an emotionally unavailable love interest, who wounds with bitter jokes and soothes with mixtapes and your own endless optimism.  And then one day he stops messing about with humorous Tumblrs, writes the great American blog, gets a tattoo of your face, and says he wants a baby.  In sum, Evelyn Waugh is your bi-curious hipster boyfriend.  Maybe modern life has its own incomprehensible manners and modes of feeling. Brideshead Revisited is mostly about things being over.  Waugh embellishes his story of Charles Ryder's lost love (Sebastian) and lost lover (Julia) with lost buildings (stuffed with soldiers, pulled down to make blocks of flats), lost generations (blown up by mortar or age, replaced by the hapless Officer Hooper), and lost lineage (the male line stymied by a déclassée widow, the great house going to the girl).  Even Charles himself, an architectural painter of country houses and jungle ruins, is the chronicler of things going and gone.  Like Anthony Powell, Waugh meditates on the intersection of personal and cultural loss, although each writer's sense of humor saves his respective work from maudlin, lost-empire ruminations. Still, out of all this wreckage, language survives--beautiful, deliberately old-fashioned language: He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long-forgotten sounds--for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror's name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight. Language, survives, and another thing.  I don't know why Waugh's cast of largely unlovable characters compels me so;  they are snobbish and emotionally bankrupt, unkind to one another and alienating in their privilege.  But there is an obscure something in Waugh's elegant prose that makes it greater than itself, something that breathes a real and honest sentiment into his flawed flock.  Waugh names the something "a small red flame--a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs . . . I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones." It's my vague understanding that Brideshead Revisited is supposed to be Waugh's conversion novel, which would make this strange, value-added something Religion, or Jesus or somebody.  But religion at its best is simply a permutation of love, and love, squandered and thwarted and disappointed as it is, animates Waugh's characters and his story.  I think Brideshead Revisited is a love story, and one that even dares, for all its urbane weariness, to believe in the remote possibility of a happy ending. Maybe it's my own sentimental organ getting the better of me, projecting romance and Jeremy Irons onto fallow ground.  Even if that is the case, with Brideshead Revisited, Waugh joins Philip Larkin, that other bitter wit and chronicler of loss, in proving "Our almost-instinct almost true/ What will survive of us is love."
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #72 A House for Mr. Biswas

I don't tend to condemn books solely because the writer was some variety of wretch.  But I have done so if I think it will create a smoke-screen for the fact that I did not understand the book.  For example, the poems of Ezra Pound mystify me, so I make sure to remind people quite needlessly that he was an anti-semitic, Grade A Best Quality fuckwad.  On the other hand, I recently learned that Eric Gill, famous book arts figure, sexually abused members of his family.  Since this revelation, I have scrapped my plans for an Eric Gill tattoo, but I still think his art is beautiful and I look at it from time to time, with a furrowed brow.  It is a very troublesome thing, the space we make in our hearts for the horrible--if they make something we like, that is.  About the creator of a beloved work it is easier for people to be more relaxed, to make hand gestures and say things like "What a man, but what an artist" (cf Of Human Bondage, I think, for the quotation). I'm not looking to sign a Free Polanski petition, but I think I understand the motivation behind (some) of his apologists. Moving on, several years ago I remember reading Naipaul's A Way in the World and finding it very boring and hard to understand.  Although, having just this minute skimmed a few reviews, it seems that either I was actually reading a different book altogether, possibly a math textbook, or that I am an incurable philistine.  In fairness, this may have been during one of the still frequent and inexplicable periods in my life when the only things I want to read are A Girl of the Limberlost or Betsy In Spite of Herself ('bout that time now, actually), and should attempt nothing else. (Although I have since this writing completed A Bend in the River, my tepid reaction to which I've shared here before.) Recognizing that V. S. Naipaul is a Distinguished Man of Letters I felt sheepish about not enjoying A Way in the World, but I received a boon in the form of an article about him, one which painted him as a terrible bastard.  So I felt that all was well, and turned my defeat into a victory over sin.  It was in this admirable spirit that I approached A House for Mr. Biswas, disdainful and yet cagy, as you would a fraud you suspect is smarter than you.  My prejudice colored the first third of the book, so that when things got grimly fun and picaresque, I reminded myself that V. S. Naipaul is a jerk.  By the end, though, I had become a quiet convert to the novel's quiet charms.  By which I do not mean to say that I wish to hold hands with V. S. Naipaul or lie down next to him, rather that I found the story very stirring and sad.  It warmed and then unpleasantly squeezed my small heart. The novel is about the shortish life of a singular man named Mohun Biswas.  The narrative opens with a prologue, which explains the whole story in a nutshell, and tells us that Mr. Biswas is ill and not long for this world.  Chapter one begins with his birth in a village hut on the island of Trinidad, and the story takes us through the whole circus of his life.  Mr. Biswas is born, he gets hustled into marriage, and for 500 pages he laments his life, has nervous breakdowns of varying degrees of magnitude, and schemes to acquire a house.  He gets the house, it's miserable and then magical, he gets sick, and dies.  He has four children, lots of jobs, little money, a shitload of inlaws, and the most ornery, pathetic, foolish, cruel and marginally lovable disposition you could imagine.  And I don't mean he is simply the third-world equivalent to the protagonist of a My Dick novel.  He is something special.  This is not a bildungsroman; it is a Biswasroman. Although, like I said, I started the novel with an ill will and was disinclined to like anybody in it, I think Naipaul very carefully forged the narrative so that the reader goes through a variety of stages with regard to Mr. Biswas.  You are angry that he is such a pain in the ass and mean to his wife.  You are depressed about his living conditions, even though he is living better than many.  You admit that his life has become unmanageable.   You deny that you are enjoying the book.   You accept that you kind of like Mr. Biswas.  You write V. S. Naipaul a letter apologizing.  Or something like that.  He also lulls you, that V. S. Naipaul, referring to Mr. Biswas as "Mr. Biswas" from page one.  The use of the honorific for someone to whom so little honor is given, but who takes himself so seriously, it tugs at the heart.   There are lots of things that tug at the heart, especially toward the end.  Their son Anand, a clever, touchy bastard like his father, gets third in the school exhibition exams, and I felt so relieved, like I, too, had put all my happiness eggs in his brain basket.  I just wish he had written more letters home once he went off to abroad. There is something distant, almost cold, about the writing; it doesn't feel like Naipaul is holding everybody in his hand, rather at arm's length.  But he must have had some affection for this family to write about them so; maybe it's a case of being very stern and grumpy with everyone so that you don't collapse into sniffles. What a man but what an artist, and all that.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #17 The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

As it happens, I read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter right after finishing Out Stealing Horses.  I felt almost forced to read the latter novel (the locus of a great storm of positive feedback), but I left it feeling disappointed in myself and in literature for our respective failures to engage and be engaged.  Fatuously, one feels one's lack of enthusiasm for a lauded novel makes somebody a philistine, but one can't, unfortunately,  be certain that it's the other guy.  It's kind of a tight spot.  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was a fortuitous follow-up, the perfect antidote to a mood like this.  The two novels share enough elements (youth and sorrow and accidental shootings) that I felt, not for the first time, as though my hand had been guided by uncanny forces--an owlish librarian in the sky. The novels' convergence served to throw them both into relief.  I found Out Stealing Horses somewhat vague.  It's not Per Petterson's fault that you have to explain things very clearly and slowly to me, but I was occasionally confused about what was taking place in the narrative.  I found the story sad, but not inordinately compelling; it lacked something, the nature of which eluded me.  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter provided a useful contrast; that novel, a mosaic of tragedy and disappointment on a grander scale, preserves an exquisite clarity of feature, for all the lives and happenings packed into it.  Having read the latter, I feel okay about things again.  Art is allowed to be conducted in a variety of styles, and readers allowed to choose which they prefer.  I don't know a lot about painting, but it seems to me like the difference between Monet and John Singer Sargent.  The former is attractive, but smudgy; the latter bold and dark and clear.   (Many might disagree with this comparison, since Petterson, like Hemingway, is understood to be master of a spare, clean, un-smudgy prose.  But Petterson, like Hemingway, like Monet, leaves me sort of cold and confused.) Carson McCullers attains a level of virtuosity on many fronts, but I was most taken with her depiction of relationships, many of which balance on a knife edge of propriety, wavering back and forth between the lovely and the weird and the outright perverse.  It is, oddly, these pairings' deviation from what we have decided is normal in life and art, that makes them feel so genuine.  John Singer the deaf-mute and his beloved Greek, Biff the barman and Mick the tween, Mick and brother George, Portia and Highboy and Willie--these relationships are furnished with a wealth of touching and gruesome details that remind us of the varieties of human experience.  Singer, all things to all men, is particularly puzzling and sad (and Christ-like, I suppose) in his slavish devotion to the dim-witted Antonapoulos.  But most of us have loved someone who wasn't the way we saw them, about whom we thought we could see something nobody else could.  Figuring out who's right and who's crazy is everyone's cross to bear.  (This post is getting awfully Biblical.  On a lighter note, consider Arrested Development: John Singer is Michael Bluth and Antonapoulos is Rita (the MRF) (sorry).  And Mick, darling Mick, is something halfway between George Michael and Maeby.) Mick Kelly is a premier young woman of fiction.  Perhaps she felt so true to me because Carson McCullers was 23 goddamn years old when she wrote this novel.  She knew of what she spoke.  Like Virginia Woolf's wicked Cam, Mick is very fierce and free.  But she's a good old soul, and she takes care of her brother.  And like many fierce little girls, she eventually does it with a boy (by accident, really), puts on makeup, and goes to work.  In one of my favorite passages in the novel, Mick (an ancient fourteen) gets off work at the ten-cent store and goes for a beer and an ice cream and a cigarette. "There were these two things she could never believe.  That Mister Singer had killed himself and was dead.  And that she was grown and had to work at Woolworth's."  I find this very poignant.  Most of us have those things we can't ever believe; often, our job is one of them.  I too, have found solace in a beer and an ice cream and a cigarette.  Often, there is none better.  The artists among you will commiserate with Mick's plight as a working person: Sometimes a quick little tune would come and go--but she never went into the inside room with music like she used to do.  It was like she was too tense.  Or maybe because it was like the store took all her energy and time.  Woolworth's wasn't the same as school.  When she used to come home from school she felt good and was ready to start working on the music.  But now she felt she was always tired.  At home she just ate supper and slept and then ate breakfast and went off to the store again.  A song she had started in her private notebook two months before was still not finished.  And she wanted to stay in the inside room but she didn't now how.  It was like the inside room was locked somewhere away from her.  A very hard thing to understand. I just love this novel.  Formally and thematically it is put together so well.  Elegant parallels abound.  And it's a great synthesis of American literature of the first half of the twentieth century.  I don't mean that it's derivative, but that it brings together the things that are good about American literature (or literature full stop, I suppose)--the engagement of Richard Wright or Sinclair Lewis with the superb depictions of interior life of Sherwood Anderson, and the old-fashioned weirdness of Flannery O'Connor.  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is bold and dark and clear, but even those things which remain inscrutable, like the reasons of the heart, McCullers shows us with a quiet, devastating sympathy.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #42 Deliverance

I have seriously mixed feelings about this book.  First off, it is part of the group of post-war novels by/about American men who are peeved because getting old is boring and their wives aren't very sexy.  Please forgive my bawdy language, but let's call them the My Dick novels, with major sub-genres My Dick is Great and  I Feel Bad About my Dick.   I used to read these without discrimination, but one day the veil fell from my eyes and I realized that these books could bring about a serious crisis of self-esteem for me, a lady who loves a man.  One doesn't need constant reminders that one's significant other will stare in horror at one's posterior fifteen years from now, and try to do it with the underaged person responsible for looking after the children for whom, theoretically, one will have compromised one's parts in order to expel.  Nor does one need to be told that, even if you should have the marvelous good fortune to keep your libido and your teeth and your satin skin and sense of humor, it won't make a whit of difference, as the man in your life will be pulled inexorably toward sex with teens.  I don't care if these accounts are based on life's hard facts, and are therefore imbued with a verisimilitude that some say makes art great.  Some things are just tedious after the hundredth time. I'm told that women get increasingly humorless as well as physically repulsive as the years go by, but I like these novels if they are really funny.  The Water-Method Man, for example, is one my favorite novels, although John Irving is an important figure in the My Dick movement. Deliverance by James Dickey, though, is the opposite of funny.  The leather vest that Burt Reynolds is wearing on the cover of my copy is funny, but that is the only thing.  Most people are familiar with the storyline, immortalized as it was by Reynolds and said vest.  For those of you who haven't heard the twang of dueling banjos, here's what happens: the narrator has three friends, one of whom is very muscular (he's the narrator's favorite).  The narrator also wants to fondle the girl who is a model at his ad agency and has a golden eye or something.  The narrator and his three friends decide to go canoeing on a river without a map or a clue; they pack some beers and bows and arrows (naturally) and hit the road.  It's all very sinister from the get-go. Then they're on the river, and terrifying rednecks (who have done more toward furthering redneck discrimination than any other rednecks in art), rape one of them.  The rednecks are about to assault the narrator, but the muscled one, Lewis, shoots one of them through the chest with an arrow.  The other redneck gets away and hides, kills one of the friends, Lewis breaks his leg, and then it's up to the narrator to stop being such a soft-living, house-having nancy all the time and find that bastard and kill him with his primal man essence.  Which he does, after some feats of strength and things that sound like they hurt a lot. All of this is told in a self-consciously poetic way, as if the author wrote it while sitting behind a duck blind with a camouflaged typewriter, looking at a picture of Walt Whitman and listening to Wagner.  Sometimes I was (very marginally) enjoying it and sometimes I was thinking that if I must read about scary, disgusting things I'd rather get my copy of The Stand out from under the bed and at least have a good time.  Then I wouldn't have to read sentences like this one: "The standing there was so good, so fresh and various and continuous, so vital and uncaring around my genitals, that I hated to leave it."  Good grief. Why is this book one of the best books of the century?  Why, Modern Library? Really, the more I think about it the more I think it's less "mixed feelings" I have about it than "fierce loathing." My main complaint is this:  Bobby has been raped, Lewis the muscled one has killed the redneck, and they're all four standing around talking about what to do, and the narrator goes ahead and says: I moved away from Bobby's red face.  None of this was his fault, but he felt tainted to me.  I remembered how he had looked over the log, how willing to let anything be done to him, and how high his voice was when he screamed. What a super attitude to have about your friend who was sexually assaulted at gunpoint!  Ecce homo! Basically the narrator is feeling pretty smug about not being the one to get "cornholed" (his charming term), and about the fact that dreamy Lewis was put out of commission and it was up to him to save the day!  I'm not one of those literal-minded turds who thinks Lolita or, I don't know, The Collector, are offensive, because I understand that you can write about things and not do them or think them yourself.  It is not the novelist's job to provide an edifying story or a lovable narrator. However, not only was I pretty lukewarm about the alleged Everyman of Deliverance, the writing style did not, for me, elevate things in any meaningful way. It felt like a missed opportunity, in a sense.  A novelist could use a moment like this to provide a neat example of how rape culture and victim-shaming hurt everyone, men and women alike.  I mean, the narrator's basic position on the issues is that sexual assault victims are embarrassing and gross, and the best thing to do is to a) shun them and b) kill everyone.  There's a lot of pithy stuff there. I'm likely missing something.  I think there is something zeitgeisty happening in the novel, something to which I'm not privy.  Maybe it's a generational thing.  Maybe it's a Vietnam thing.  Obviously, it's a dick(ey) thing. On that note, Happy Thanksgiving.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #95 Under the Net

I think it's a symptom of the internet age, or my impending old age, or doom, that while I used to amble into a used book shop with no particular book in mind and leave satisfied with a bulging grocery bag, now I find myself a slave to a roster.  Before, I would keep a vague running list of books I wanted to read, which basically encompassed the whole of literature as I understood it, so that any pile of two dollar books was bound to yield several items of interest.   And now I want what I want when I want it.   Under the Net was a long-time bee in my bonnet.  There are so many Iris Murdoch novels, in so many printings; they are a fixture in secondhand book shops.  When I realized that this one, her first, was on the Modern Library list, I thought I was bound to come across it before too long.  For nine months it eluded me, although in pursuit of that title I managed to read five other Murdoch novels.  In the same way, I read Black Boy instead of Native Son, and Young Torless instead of The Man Without Qualities, and loathsome Henderson the Rain King instead of Herzog.  Which is a good thing!  I'm better for having read them all.  But every year that goes by finds me less happy to cast the net in this haphazard fashion (hence my summer of discontent).  I require specific titles now.  I've undergone a paradigm shift.  It's kind of a bummer, actually. (I do know all about libraries, and I cherish them.  But I like to own the books that I read, and I like to read books that I own.  In case there is an emergency.  It's a thing about me.) Anyway, I wanted to read Under the Net, and I got sick of looking in vain and reading things other than Under the Net, and I finally outsourced the job to the internet.  I felt sort of guilty about this, like buying a pet instead of adopting.  I did it media mail, which seemed more virtuous, in the manner of hard church pews and wooden teeth.   After eight days, the novel arrived.  All things considered, the experience was obscenely convenient. Someone once said (it was me) that Iris Murdoch wrote so many novels that if you are in the mood to read something by her, there is probably a fresh one available.  It’s like having a harem wherein all the inmates are related to one another and look alike, yet retain sterling qualities of their own.  I quote myself not because I'm the last word on Iris Murdoch, but because the metaphor has useful application here.  If Murdoch's huge oeuvre is a harem of related women, then reading Under the Net is like going in back in time to meet their matriarch, coltish and sepia-toned on the day she was plucked from her village.  I have always thought that The Sea, The Sea stands apart from the other Murdoch novels I've read, largely because of the spicy and pitch-perfect first person narrative.  I thought, perhaps, that it was a prime example of late-ish Murdoch at the height of her powers.  So I was surprised to discover find that her first novel, published in 1954, has more in common with The Sea² (1978), than any of the works published between (that I've read, of course).  Like The Sea², Under the Net is written in the first person.  The earlier novel's narrator, translator and occasional writer Jack Donoghue, is kind of a feckless, easier-going, impoverished prototype of Charles Arrowby, who came a quarter century later.  I suppose they really don't have much in common, since Arrowby's whole being is centered on being the opposite of feckless and easy-going and impoverished.  But they are both educated, afraid of commitment, and very funny.  They are memorable, varying somewhat from the stock cast of awful aesthetes and academes who populate the majority of her novels.  Not that Donoghue isn't one of those, but his way with words is considerably more amusing.  Here, kicked out of one rent-free situation, he ponders the future: It was certainly something of a problem to know where to go next.  I wondered if Dave Gellman would harbour us.  I fondled the idea, though I suspected it was no good.  Dave is an old friend, but he's a philosopher, not the kind that tells you about your horoscope and the number of the beast, but a real one like Kant and Plato, so of course he has no money. The whole experience of Under the Net was surprising.  Unless one has made a pointed effort to study them, one can have only a hazy sense of the zeitgeist of decades and places in which one hasn't lived.  That said, Iris Murdoch is so relentlessly urbane and modern that Under the Net seemed to me much younger than its 55 years.  I'm aware that drinking and being feckless and running around was not unheard of in the 1950s--I did read Lucky Jim (also published 1954.  In fact, I think Jim Dixon could conceivably have enjoyed a matey bender with Jack Donaghue and company).  But the people of Under the Net seemed very hip, or at least as though they could have easily populated a later novel.  Perhaps it's not that Murdoch was cutting-edge, but that her eternal engagement with the pedantic, the bachanalian, and the emotionally stunted will never go out of style. The plot of Under the Net doesn't bear summarizing.  It is farcical and, I dare say, "rollicking;" there's even a dog who stars in movies.  I am unused to feeling so little feminist rage during a Murdoch novel; this one was light-hearted and lacked the sinister undertones present in, for example, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine and Message to the Planet.  Under the Net could even be called a buddy novel; Donoghue and his Irish familiar, Finn, reminded me not a little of my favorite John Irving book, The Water Method Man, and the adventures of Bogus Trumper (also a translator), and Merrill Overturf described therein. I find it odd that this novel would make it onto the Modern Library list over TS².  It's a little fluffy.  But, as we've been hearing so much recently, lists are problematic, and the Modern Library list is so problematic on so many levels that its defects no longer shock.  Pluralities are weird.  Still, Under the Net's presence on the list caused me to hunt it down and read it, which not only caused me to have a nice Sunday afternoon (it's short), but freed up a spot on the roster.  That's one for the list.  Then again, the existence of a list only serves to codify things and thus intensify the need for a roster, which causes me to have fewer pleasant afternoons digging through bookshops, and more neurotic episodes on the internet.  That's one against.   Anyway, Under the Net was fun and I liked it.  I'll leave you with a word from Jack, who has troubles of his own:  I glanced hastily through the manuscripts.  Once before, in a rage, Magdalen had torn up the first sixty stanzas of an epic poem called And Mr Oppenheim Shall Inherit the Earth. This dated from the time when I had ideals.  At that time too it had not yet become clear to me that the present age was not one in which it was impossible to write an epic. At that time I naively imagined that there was no reason why one should not attempt to write anything that one felt inclined to write.  But nothing is more paralyzing than a sense of historical perspective, especially in literary matters . . . But to return to Mr Oppenheim; my friends had criticized the title because it sounded anti-Semitic, though of course Mr Oppenheim simply symbolized big business, but Madge didn't tear it up for that, but out of pique, because I broke a lunch date with her to meet a woman novelist.  The latter was a dead loss, but I can back to find Mr Oppenheim in pieces.  This was in the old days, but I feared that the performance might have been repeated. Who knows what thoughts were passing through that girl's mind while she was deciding to throw me out?  There's nothing like a woman's doing you an injury for making her incensed against you.  I know myself how exasperating it is of other people to put themselves in positions where you have to injure them. 
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #78 Kim

I avoided reading Kim for a long time because I've always thought of it as some creaking colonial bore, popular with dads (or my dad, rather. Who is not, for the record, a creaking colonial bore).  Kipling, I have observed, is catnip to gentlemen over a certain age; how far they are over that age determines how much they own up to his allure.  Kipling is also high on what I will call the Post-Colonial Burn Index (higher than Conrad, lower than Haggard).  These are the authors who look particularly dingy in the bright(ish) light of progress.  While authors high on this index retain value within Academia and among the Olds, their stock with the Youngs and the read-for-fun set is at an ebb.  I guess it's like that for most hundred year-old books, regardless of reputation.  Either way, I approached Kim expecting little. I came away from Kim surprised on two fronts.  First, I was surprised to find that I was actually reading, for the second time this month, a John le Carre novel.  It was all there; the story of an orphaned sahib, long on brains and short on pedigree, fostered from a tender age by the everloving arms of the Service, all in the name of thwarting the Russians.  The Russians, it seems, are a perennial problem.  In fact, Kim gave me a greater appreciation for John le Carre, who cleverly channels and complicates Kipling throughout his own work.  Among other things, he charges right into the impossibility, which Kipling prods at without really engaging, of being wholly part of two worlds. Then, I was surprised that I enjoyed reading the novel.  It laid on the White Man's Burden less thick than I expected.  Of course it's there; it's the crux of the story.  But I thought the novel was going to be a mouth-breathing white man in a topee.  Instead, like Kim himself, it's a lissome kid in salwar kameez.  It lulls you into thinking you are simply reading a charming buddy road novel, or turning the pages of a sepia-toned viewbook.  You're skipping school, mixing it up, hustling, but with heart. Of course, it happens not to be that simple.  Kipling clearly had a deep, abiding affection for and interest in the landscape, people, customs, and cultural complexities of his erstwhile homeland, and it is felt profoundly throughout this novel.  Still, comfortably coexisting with this sentiment was the firm conviction that England was the legitimate shepherd of the Subcontinental flock.  George Orwell, who went back and forth in his estimation of Kipling (he called him a "jingo imperialist...morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting," but he granted him a place in the literary-historical pantheon) knew this apparent paradox well.  In Burmese Days, Mr Macgregor stiffened at the word 'nigger', which is discountenanced in India. He had no prejudice against Orientals; indeed, he was deeply fond of them. Provided they were given no freedom he thought them the most charming people alive. It always pained him to see them wantonly insulted. 'Is it quite playing the game,' he said stiffly, 'to call these people niggers--a term they very naturally resent--when they are obviously nothing of the kind? The Burmese are Mongolians, the Indians are Aryans or Dravidians, and all of them are quite distinct--' Kipling, although probably not much like the ineffectual Magregor, shares his barbed affection for the colonized.  His character Kim, the "friend of all the world," is a Mary Sue.  He's good at everything--languages, friendship, cursing, disguises (skirts, even).  He can mix with sahibs, Pathans, Bengalis, Tibetan lamas, and everyone else.  Basically, he is the most awesome guy ever.  And, like, not only can he do all the things that various brown people can do, but he's secretly white!  It does not get more awesome than that. The best use of Kim's genius for cross-cultural passing, Kipling tells us with no trace of irony, is a role as a spy in the Great Game, toward the continued Dominion of the British Empire (and, naturally, the subjugation of her subjects).  The novel reflects the most insidious kind of prejudice--the kind woven into a love song.  Consider the print and hot air devoted quite sincerely to the beauty, the superior heart, the emotional intelligence of women--written and spoken, to a word, by people who thought women were too stupid to vote.  That's kind of the situation here. Sorting through my impressions when I finished the novel, I find there is something weird about the whole thing.  For one, the story is so wistful and idealized that it reads more like a fairy tale than the jewel in the crown of a Nobel laureate.  I feel Kipling in that I fantasize about being a Kim, being able to fit in and speak without an accent.  I'm a foreign service brat, from a contingent whose central paradox is that they feel homesick for places they don't understand and languages they can't speak. The desire with which Kipling wants to be Kim seems palpable to me, and ludicrous, considering Kim's impossible awesomeness.  He's the Whole Boy: Indian Edition.  In fact, Kim is so awesome that I spent the last quarter of the book convinced that he was about to die, like whatsername in Little Women. But he doesn't die.  In fact, I'm not quite sure what he does, despite reading an essay literally entitled "What Happens at the End of Kim?"  Kim's buddy, the holy man, attains nirvana, but turns back, like one does, to take his apprentice along.  Kim is already bound to a life of international intrigue, though, so I'm pretty sure he can't come.  It's sort of win-win either way for him, I thought, although I'm not sure about the lama.  Maybe there's something here I'm not grasping. Ultimately, I suppose the book is a jewel.  For all that it is founded on the paradox of prejudice and a shaky plot, the story sparkles.  It's just that it sparkles from a tarnished crown in a pawnshop window, a relic from a discredited raj.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #20 Native Son

I think I was the last of my age peers to read Native Son; I feel like most of us read it in school. Either I never had it in a course, or I did, but it was during one of my bouts of absenteeism from class and scholastic responsibility. So I got it from the library a few years ago. I had no idea what it was about, but I knew that it was a book about race and a Huge Deal. I started the novel, and I had a feeling of dread from the page one, and when I got to the severed head I quit, feeling dispirited. There is a moment in the (completely unrelated) Fitzgerald novel The Beautiful and the Damned, wherein three elite gentleman make plans to see a show: "The thing is tersely called 'The Woman,'" says one character. "I presume that she will pay." Stripped entirely of its context, I have always felt that this remark is an elegant statement of life's facts. At the time of my first reading, Richard Wright's novel seemed to reaffirm my conviction that this is true (and this, mind you, was before I had even got to poor Bessie). This particular woman, severed-headed Mary, was pretty awful, but I didn't want to read about her getting stuffed in the furnace. And things seemed so inevitable for Bigger Thomas; the only place for the story to go was down. Talking of tropes, we all know what happened when a black man was suspected to have looked sideways a white woman. Bigger Thomas' goose was cooked long before he put a pillow over Mary's face. Much later it occurred to me what a fraud I am. How, I thought, am I going to go crazy for 2666, happily slogging through 100 pages of murdered women, while this crucial American work offends my delicate sensibilities? So I returned to the novel with my nerves steeled. I gave it another chance, and it knocked my everloving socks off. In retrospect, I am discomfited that I took Bigger so personally the first time I picked up the novel, and that I actually to an extent, failed to separate the author from his creation. I have never assumed that John Fowles sympathized with men who hold women hostage in their basements, so why would I think Richard Wright was holding up this crapbag Bigger as a delightful specimen of humanity? Why did it suddenly matter that the woman always pays? Surely a book so lauded wouldn't deal in pointless female victimization (okay, one might, especially if it was by Norman Mailer, but that's a story for another day). Wright's novel begins with Bigger Thomas doing a series of hateful things. Mean to his sister, mean to his long-suffering, hard-working mother, mean to his friends, prone to violent rages. Starting the novel, I admit I had that ignoble instinct I so hate when I hear it from the mouths of right-wing reactionaries; the sentiment that basically goes "Do what your parents did, Sir. Get a job, Sir." When I got near the end of the book, to read basically the same words come out of the miserable dickhead State's Attorney's mouth during Bigger's (sham) trial, that hurt. No! He cursed his mother! He said that he did not want to work! He wanted to loaf about the streets, steal from newsstands, rob stores, meddle with women, frequent dives, attend cheap movies, and chase prostitutes! It's a shocking sensation, to see yourself partially mirrored in the novel's villainous bigot. That's good art, friends! Especially because by the time you've made it to the State's Attorney you, (I, that is) do feel pretty terrible for Bigger. And also just terrible. Wright's pacing is brilliant. It starts hard. It's a realistic sort of pace. It doesn't get easier as the novel goes on, but things get explained. They start to make more sense. In life, when you hear about something terrible, you usually haven't prepared for it by reading a treatise on human behavior and motivations beforehand. And, unfortunately, often you don't want to take the time to reflect on said behavior and motivations. You just want to say, "Do what your parents, did, Sir. Get a job, sir." You want to put the book down. I think I really quit the novel that first time because I had a premonition that it was going to be hard, and possibly even hard on me. I suspected that it wouldn't let me walk the easy, feel-good path with regard to racism - the Newbery Medal kind of way, where even though terrible things happen, humanity mostly prevails and, ideally, a triumph or two of the human spirit takes place. The kind of book, additionally, that lets me, as a white person, feel confident that I would have been friends with Cassie Logan even if the town disapproved. But Native Son is not a novel that wants to hold anybody's hand. Native Son does not want to tuck you into bed at night and reassure you that you are with it. Wright, starting as he did with a hugely unlovable character, dares you to face certain realities. Namely, that discussions of oppression are infinitely more comfortable when members of the oppressed race in question are doing things like passively resisting, writing monumental novels, and being elected president by a majority of the country so that one can say "My goodness, we've come a long way!" But that's stupid. The reason that institutionalized racism is despicable is because it takes away humanity. Obviously it makes the oppressor ugly; but it can make its victims ugly too. Ugliness breeds ugliness. Why should a book about something ugly be made palatable so that I, a white lady, can feel uplifted? Normally I don't read authors' explanations of their work, because I prefer the author to not be tiresome and talk about himself all the time, when he could be working hard to create more entertainment for me. However, I found Wright's essay "How 'Bigger' was born" (included in some editions of Native Son) fascinating. I'm not crazy about the writing style in Native Son, although it more than serves its purpose in the novel, but I love Richard Wright's prose in the Bigger essay (and in Black Boy). I enjoy the prose, and it was illuminating to learn why Wright sat down to write this novel. But the essay mainly struck me as impressive proof positive that the author set out to do a very specific something, and, in fact, did that very thing. I had written a book of short stories which was published under the title of Uncle Tom's Children. When the reviews of that book began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naive mistake. I found that I had written a book which even bankers' daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears. It was this that made me get to work in earnest. Well, I'm hear to say that this is hard and deep, and that I faced it without the consolation of tears. The man did what he wanted. And, I would add, did in spite of "the fears which a Negro feels from living in America - standing over me, draped in white, warning me not to write." Post Script: A twisted coincidence: lest you think this book and its indictment of American society is no longer relevant, consider this: as I was writing this Revue, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is fucking quoted on my copy of this novel, was arrested for, it would seems, entering his home while black.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #15 To the Lighthouse

To write this installment of Modern Revue, I located and reread the copy of To the Lighthouse I had in college. The shock that the novel delivered to my booze-sodden collegiate nervous system is demonstrable. My copy looks like a creature, bristling with orange post-its. Obscure marginal notes abound, many of which are enormously insightful. My favorites include: "father castrates his lighthouse," "a sexual woman, all the children = all the sex," and "what will he put in her 'bag'?" There is a liberal sprinkling of "vagina" and "phallus," and one "oh dear," presumably the moment when I called for my smelling salts. The class, naturally, was Introduction to Literary Theory. I can remember writing a paper on this novel, and thinking myself into a hole (and a headache) trying to assert what Virginia Woolf's position was on Scimitars and Fountains, The Phallus and The Lighthouse and The Vagina. But I can also remember being astonished by the novel's beauty, which astonishes me still. It is perplexing and crowded with saucy imagery, but it is full of true things. I wonder if there is a book more packed with truth, one that carries as much weight per word. I know there is no other book that caused me so fervently to say "There it is!" and mean, "You know, like, life." It surprises me that I do like this book so much. I am very sensitive to experimental narratives. There are, of course, a vast number of exceptions to this prejudice. Usually, though, if I pick up a book and the story runs away from me, I feel intensely irritated and pained. The Sound and the Fury? Agony. At Swim-Two-Birds? Agony. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men? What the fuck. To the Lighthouse walks a remarkable line, I think, forging ahead with art, but preserving clarity, and my sanity. There are a lot of characters. And there are confusing moments, especially if you are reading too fast. I had to return to the parenthetical deaths to make sure I had read correctly. But that was an amazing device; the deaths, parenthetical as they are, feel so unreal and so shocking, and then so real and so sad, much like they do in life. And before you know it, the story continues and the dead are gone, also like life. I shudder to say this, but this is a book that meant a lot to me as a woman. I liked Edan's description of the "mom book." I think her "mom book," is something I usually think of as the "lady book." Lady books are different than "chick lit" - they don't have shoes or poodles on the cover. They are also different from books that are by women, which can be any kind of book at all. Lady books feature heavy feelings with a chance of magic and sparkles, and, like Edan said, little irony. They also have no jokes whatsoever. The once and future queen of the lady books is, in my opinion, Alice Hoffman. After a high school love affair with these books, I largely renounced them. For one, many lady books sound like many other lady books. I'm not sure how to describe it, but they all have exactly the same cadence, and it's creepy. For another, I feel enough of life is dictated by one's parts that one's books needn't be. As a result of this renunciation, I hesitate to admit that I like a book for a reason directly pertaining to my sex. So many books are marketed to me as my kind of book, because they have sea anemones and clasped hands on the front. And I hate it, so it makes me wary of saying "I, possessed of a certain chromosome pairing, feel this work is important," when I do find a book that makes me feel that way. And To the Lighthouse is that kind of book, and it's a shame that I feel icky saying it. I see the novel, to some extent, as documenting an evolutionary stage in womanity (and thus, humanity). Mrs. Ramsay - beautiful, mother of eight - dies and goes, while Lily Briscoe, unmarried and "puckered," lives and stays, and finally gets to finish her damn painting. That's the story. Woolf doesn't create such a hammy, obvious dichotomy as I've done; Lily and Mrs. Ramsay (and Cam, and Prue, and Minta, and Mrs. McNab) share between them a hundred facets of the "feminine experience." That's not to say that all women must love the novel or agree with me about the feminine experience, or that men are peripheral to the novel, and that they can't "understand" why it's great (not to say either, of course, that all men are the same). That's nonsense. But it amazes me how true some of the passages feel to me personally eighty years later. I've felt so many of the things described in the book, particularly the ones that are ascribed to the female characters. I have had those "infidel ideas," imagining A life different form hers; in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other; for there was in all their minds a mute questioning of deference and chivalry, of the Bank of England and the Indian Empire, or ringed fingers and lace, though to them all there was something in this of the essence of beauty, which called out the manliness in their girlish hearts, and made them, as they sat at table beneath their mother's eyes, honour her strange severity, her extreme courtesy... But I have also felt the "code": ...It behooves the woman, whatever her own occupation may be, to go to the help of the young man opposite so that he may expose and relieve the thigh bones, the ribs, of his vanity, of his urgent desire to assert himself; as indeed it is their duty, she reflected, in her old maidenly fairness, to help us, suppose the Tube were to burst into flames... Unlike the lady book, this isn't a book for women. It is a book that describes certain elements of women's lives and collective history. It's a book that should make any person think about gender and society and life and what it's like and how Woolf's vision does or does not pertain to him or her. The "code" is a two-way street after all. I'm sure there's a man out there who doesn't much feel like giving up his seat on the raft. One still encounters the Mr. Ramsay-esque artesian well of masculine need. There are still wicked, winsome Cams who grow into sullen teenagers with daddy issues. People still die in wars and childbirth and suddenly in the night. Life is still complicated and silly, for men and women alike. When I finished To the Lighthouse this time, I wished so much that Virginia Woolf was around to do the hard work for us again, that she was here to use her painful sensitivity to to the world and to take the world and set it down so we could say "There it is!" (again). But I should just be grateful that she lived to do it the first time, and that she did it so well then.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue #40: The Heart of the Matter

I have a slightly hard time with Graham Greene. I don't know why. I think his writing is very good. He has weighty themes and sexy titles. And yet I have found that I can't really remember anything about his novels beyond the most basic plot points. I'm talking about his "serious" fiction here. I could tell you the story of Travels With my Aunt in painful detail, but recalling The Power and the Glory, I can only come up with "The priest died." I also read The Quiet American; in that one I remember the American died. A pattern emerged in The Heart of the Matter, wherein the policeman was also called to Graham Greene's crowded firmament. The Heart of the Matter might turn out to be more memorable for me because it is about unsavory colonials (Although I suppose The P & G and The QA are also about unsavory colonials, in their own ways. I guess most things are about unsavory colonials, when you get right down to it). But I was more receptive to The Heart of the Matter because it reminded me of one of my favorite books, Burmese Days, George Orwell's first novel and what I consider to be his unsung masterpiece. Burmese Days, like The Heart of the Matter, is about unsavory colonials, and it is about suicide. Both novels are populated with pathetic, overgrown schoolboys and refined women living for their husbands' promotions; in both you feel what a shoddy business colonialism is. Although I prefer Burmese Days and its overall effect, Greene's description of the bachelor cable censor and the bachelor spy (both graduates of the same second-rate school) competing at cockroach-hunting in the decrepit Bedford Hotel is a great moment in literature, and in the history of Empire. The novels share a handful of other elements. (Let me to take a moment to apologize if my penchant for well-trod literary territory and retrograde comparey-contrasty analysis revolts readers, lowers the general tone, and threatens to turn this site into a high school English class, as one truculent darling recently noted in a thrilling commenter skirmish. Like Elvis, I'm just doin' [sic] the best I can.) At any rate, both of these novels have: 1. A rich, conniving Native, the baseness of whose mind is rather cheaply reflected in the grossness of his person. 2. A comparatively fetching young English woman, marooned in an undesirable outpost of empire. 3. A small, grumpy, racist English population, whose primary concern is the eternal struggle to keep the gin cold. 4. And, by christ, they've both got a main character whose surname is five letters and ends in a y! Perhaps these similarities have to do with the universality of the colonial (and, dare I say, the post-colonial) experience and mentality. And maybe Graham Greene had a gander at Orwell's earlier novel and used it as a jumping-off point for his more complex and (to me) less convincing story. Because ultimately the novels diverge, and The Heart of the Matter goes in a puzzling direction. Both novels end in a suicide. I understand the motivations of Orwell's wretched Flory, whose public disgrace, as a casualty of local political machinations, prevents him from marrying the (awful) woman of his dreams. Love hurts. And life, especially his, sucks. But Greene's Scoby, who is also a suicide and also in some respects a victim of local politics, is harder to empathize with. Scoby is a converted Catholic and a real boy scout. His official career is undistinguished, despite his devotion to his various duties. His young daughter has died. His wife is a trial but he tries to make her happy. She remains unhappy, and goes to live in South Africa, and through a series of extraordinary events, Scoby is unfaithful. The wife comes back, and then he is unfaithful to his mistress with the wife. He feels awfully guilty, but he takes Communion anyway which is a mortal sin, and then he's so distraught by this that he ends it all. Meanwhile, he finally gets that promotion. His life sucked too, maybe more than Flory's, but he seemed okay with it for the most part. It was the sinning that finally got him down. I read Brideshead Revisited, where I learned that British Catholics are an obscurely persecuted minority who have to Stick Together No Matter What. I am also familiar with the adage about the converted and his alarming zeal. But still it seemed odd to me that Scoby committed one easily forgiven sin, and then made it worse by taking Communion, and then decided to do the one thing that is basically unfixable in his cosmology, which is to leave the party early and on purpose. It was clear that Scoby was bound for a sad end, but I thought it would be from borrowing money, or for not being whatever the word for "pukka" is in West Africa, or for some terrible scandal with his job. But no, it's all got to do with his immortal soul. I suppose I am very privileged in that, if I am in possession of an immortal soul, it gives me very little trouble, like an unerupted wisdom tooth. And I wasn't quite sure what Graham Greene made of this behavior either - whether he presented this character as exemplary of an excess of virtue, or of Catholics being crazy, or whether he thought Scoby was a saint or an idiot or what. He's certainly the nicest person in the book. Maybe it isn't something easily categorized. Maybe it is, to use the abhorrent popular expression, what it is. For a while I thought that Greene's novel was the less depressing one, because it dealt with somebody who is not like most people, instead of, as in Orwell's novel, with a a pretty ordinary man in an unfortunate spot. I venture to say that most people don't kill themselves because they've told two women they love them and then go to church, as Scoby does. I was going to say that Orwell's novel is more rugged and brutal than Greene's, without any of this airy-fairy spiritual stuff, but the more I think about it, the less I know (and the more confused I get). Most functioning organisms will almost always believe that life is better than death, but something about Scoby's psyche was obviously incompatible with life, even though he seemed like such a nice guy. I wanted to shake Scoby and say "Snap out of it, Scoby! You have every reason to live!" but even without the compromised immortal soul aspect, he really didn't really have a lot of good reasons to live. Both Burmese Days and The Heart of the Matter seem to say that life, or life in a certain place, is kind of rubbish, but Greene takes it further to say that the most, I guess principled person, in the place isn't able to live in it. That, maybe, is the heart of the matter. And that's dark.