Friday, March 17, 2017

not as good as Anna Karenina, though

Everybody feels the greater force of the climax that assumes its right place without an effort, when the time comes, compared with that in which a strain and an exaggerated stress are perceptible. The process of writing a novel seems to be one of continual forestalling and anticipating ; far more important than the immediate page is the page to come, still in the distance, on behalf of which this one is secretly working. The writer makes a point and reserves it at the same time, creates an effect and holds it back, till in due course it is appropriated and used by the page for which it is intended. It must be a pleasure to the writer, it is certainly a great pleasure to the critic, when the stroke is cleanly brought off. It is the same pleasure indeed ; the novelist makes the stroke, but the critic makes it again by perceiving it, and is legitimately satisfied by the sense of having perceived it with good artistry. It is spoilt, of course, if the stroke is handled tactlessly and obtrusively ; the art of preparation is no art if it betrays itself at the outset, calling attention to its purpose. By definition it is unrecognizable until it attains its end ; it is the art of rendering an impression that is found to have been made, later on, but that evades detection at the moment.
Percy Lubbuck on Balzac, characterization and foreshadowing, from The Craft of Fiction, 1921

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

How much money did the devil make by gulling Eve?

We are not among those who have had faith in Herman Melville's South Pacific travels so much as in his strength of imagination. The Confidence-Man shows him in a new character -- that of a satirist, and a very keen, somewhat bitter, observer. His hero, like Mr. Melville in his earlier works, asks confidence of everybody under different masks of mendicancy, and is, on the whole, pretty successful.... It required close knowledge of the world, and of the Yankee world, to write such a book and make the satire acute and telling, and the scenes not too improbable for the faith given to fiction. Perhaps the moral is the gullibility of the great Republic, when taken on its own tack. At all events, it is a wide enough moral to have numerous applications, and sends minor shafts to right and left. Several capital anecdotes are told, and well told; but we are conscious of a certain hardness in the book, from the absence of humour, where so much humanity is shuffled into close neighbourhood. And with the absence of humour, too, there is an absence of kindliness. The view of human nature is severe and sombre -- at least, that is the impression left on our mind.... Few Americans write so powerfully as Mr. Melville, or in better English, and we shall look forward with pleasure to his promised continuation of the masquerade. The first part is a remarkable work, and will add to his reputation. --London Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, July 1857
"a certain hardness in the book," yes, that's it exactly. This is a stern book, an upwelling of Melville's disappointment and frustration with his America. I am not sure what to say about this novel, or why I'd say it or to whom I'd say it. And yet, look at me go.

The Confidence-Man is the last Herman Melville novel published during his lifetime. On the whole, it baffled American reviewers; the English reviewers, such as the above-quoted writer, were able to make more of the book. I don't know what that means, if anything, except that perhaps it's hard to have a sense of humor about oneself, to understand when one is the subject of a powerful and cutting satire.

The Confidence-Man is a powerful and cutting satire of America, Melville focusing his "certain hardness" on the American love of profit and the American casual objectification of Native Americans. It is a social critique in the form of a sort of picaresque folk tale: a riverboat sails up the Mississippi River on April Fool's Day of 1851 or so, filled with Americans from all walks of life. Onto this boat steps The Confidence-Man, a professional swindler with no fixed identity, who changes his name, costume, and persona about once an hour, seeking victims who will "have confidence" in him. "Confidence" here means something like "trust", as in "will you trust this man with your money?" He is at one time a beggar, at another a hawker of medicines, turning up later as a representative of a mining firm who'll sell you as many shares in the mine as you can buy. He is made of air, mostly, lies and air. The Confidence-Man preaches tolerance and charity, chiding his fellows when they show selfishness, getting money from many of them by a wide variety of ruses. If you were to call the Confidence-Man a fraud, a thief, he would put on a wounded expression and quote the gospels at you.

This is a funny book, an insightful book, a terrifying book. Melville was angry.

A few nights ago I was struck by how similar The Confidence-Man is to Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. Not just because the Rabelais book has a cast of characters on a boat and each chapter is a comic episode, and not just because the character who gradually takes over the "Pantagruel" books is a dishonest and selfish liar, but there is also something in the tone of both books that is similar, and I realized for the first time that Gargantua and Pantagruel must be a satire of 16th-century France, when all this time I was thinking it was mostly just a bawdy comedy. Shows what I know.

I am also delighted to find so many references to the plays of Shakespeare in The Confidence-Man. They're scattered liberally across the whole narrative, which is quite fun for a guy like me.

Friday, February 17, 2017

astonishment at the tangled web of some character

If reason be judge, no writer has produced such inconsistent characters as nature herself has. It must call for no small sagacity in a reader unerringly to discriminate in a novel between the inconsistencies of conception and those of life as elsewhere. Experience is the only guide here; but as no one man can be coextensive with what is, it may be unwise in every ease to rest upon it. When the duck-billed beaver of Australia was first brought stuffed to England, the naturalists, appealing to their classifications, maintained that there was, in reality, no such creature; the bill in the specimen must needs be, in some way, artificially stuck on.

But let nature, to the perplexity of the naturalists, produce her duck-billed beavers as she may, lesser authors some may hold, have no business to be perplexing readers with duck-billed characters. Always, they should represent human nature not in obscurity, but transparency, which, indeed, is the practice with most novelists, and is, perhaps, in certain cases, someway felt to be a kind of honor rendered by them to their kind. But, whether it involve honor or otherwise might be mooted, considering that, if these waters of human nature can be so readily seen through, it may be either that they are very pure or very shallow. Upon the whole, it might rather be thought, that he, who, in view of its inconsistencies, says of human nature the same that, in view of its contrasts, is said of the divine nature, that it is past finding out, thereby evinces a better appreciation of it than he who, by always representing it in a clear light, leaves it to be inferred that he clearly knows all about it.

But though there is a prejudice against inconsistent characters in books, yet the prejudice bears the other way, when what seemed at first their inconsistency, afterwards, by the skill of the writer, turns out to be their good keeping. The great masters excel in nothing so much as in this very particular. They challenge astonishment at the tangled web of some character, and then raise admiration still greater at their satisfactory unraveling of it; in this way throwing open, sometimes to the understanding even of school misses, the last complications of that spirit which is affirmed by its Creator to be fearfully and wonderfully made.

At least, something like this is claimed for certain psychological novelists; nor will the claim be here disputed. Yet, as touching this point, it may prove suggestive, that all those sallies of ingenuity, having for their end the revelation of human nature on fixed principles, have, by the best judges, been excluded with contempt from the ranks of the sciences—palmistry, physiognomy, phrenology, psychology. Likewise, the fact, that in all ages such conflicting views have, by the most eminent minds, been taken of mankind, would, as with other topics, seem some presumption of a pretty general and pretty thorough ignorance of it. Which may appear the less improbable if it be considered that, after poring over the best novels professing to portray human nature, the studious youth will still run risk of being too often at fault upon actually entering the world; whereas, had he been furnished with a true delineation, it ought to fare with him something as with a stranger entering, map in hand, Boston town; the streets may be very crooked, he may often pause; but, thanks to his true map, he does not hopelessly lose his way. Nor, to this comparison, can it be an adequate objection, that the twistings of the town are always the same, and those of human nature subject to variation. The grand points of human nature are the same to-day they were a thousand years ago. The only variability in them is in expression, not in feature.

But as, in spite of seeming discouragement, some mathematicians are yet in hopes of hitting upon an exact method of determining the longitude, the more earnest psychologists may, in the face of previous failures, still cherish expectations with regard to some mode of infallibly discovering the heart of man.
From one of several essays about literature worked into Melville's The Confidence-Man. This is most of "Chapter XIV: Worth the Consideration of Those to Whom it May Prove Worth Considering." I must say that Melville hits the nail pretty squarely on the head here.

Friday, February 10, 2017

He belonged to that race of beings, less paradoxical than they appear, whose ideal is manly simply because their temperament is feminine

I have not read much in the way of Proust studies, so I don't know if it's already been pointed out: the similarities between the Marcel character and the Charlus character in Proust's In Search of Lost Time, especially in volume IV, Sodom and Gomorrah. Is the irony intentional? Was Marcel Proust aware that Marcel-the-narrator and the Baron de Charlus were versions of each other?

Points of comparison:
  • The aggressive public heterosexuality, featuring a near adoration of women and a constant leering evaluation of them as sexual objects
  • The sneering condescension based on a shallow intellectual pride
  • The overvaluation of art and the "proper" appreciation of art
  • The concern over one's wardrobe
  • The intense interest in the possible homosexual tendencies of other men
Is the joke that Marcel-the-narrator is in fact homosexual and hasn't figured it out yet? Or is the joke that Marcel Proust the author is in fact using Marcel-the-narrator as a stand in and is pointing to his own (Proust's) sexuality in an ironic fashion? Or is it that Proust the author doesn't see that he paints Marcel's portrait with the same brush strokes he uses to paint the portrait of Charlus? I'm not sure quite where the irony lies.
Their honour precarious, their liberty provisional, lasting only until the discovery of their crime; their position unstable, like that of the poet who one day was feasted at every table, applauded in every theatre in London, and on the next was driven from every lodging, unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head.
I wouldn't be wondering any of this, I believe, if the theme of Sodom and Gomorrah wasn't How gay is Paris, anyway?

One thing I find very interesting is that there's the same sense of fearful anticipation in scenes where Charlus is seducing men as in scenes where Marcel is attempting to seduce women. Marcel's sympathies and fears for Charlus are the same as his sympathies and fears for himself (or Proust's sympathies and fears are equal for both men). There is something dangerous about sex all through In Search of Lost Time, alluring and full of extreme risk.

Monday, January 30, 2017

"It won't eat you." Elephants and H.E. Bates

I read a collection of stories by English writer Herbert Ernest (H. E.) Bates, who died in 1974 and of whom I'd never heard before I stumbled across this volume in a used bookstore during a trip to Boise. What sold me was the back cover copy comparing Bates to Chekhov, whom I love. Bates is not quite an English Chekhov, though, at least not in the collection Elephant's Nest in a Rhubarb Tree. Though by an interesting coincidence, Bates' first novel The Two Sisters was only published (after rejections from several other publishers) by Johnathan Cape upon the recommendation of Edward Garnett, whose wife Constance was the translator who more-or-less introduced Chekhov's works to the English-speaking world, and who remains my favorite translator of Chekhov. So there you go, small world and all of that.

Bates wrote a lot of novels and stories. Twenty-five novels, I think, a dozen story collections, books of criticism and books for children, three autobiographies, and God knows what else. Apparently he's quite well known and here I am, just now stumbling over his tomb. His writing career spanned the years 1926 to 1974, and for much of that time he put out a novel and a story collection each year. So a prolific and busy writer.

Henry Miller's preface to this collection calls Bates "rather conventional," by which I suppose Miller means that Bates was not in the least an experimental writer. Bates was not deeply influenced by the Moderns, in other words. Which is fine, because the best of the Bates I've read (which is not much, percentage-wise), is mighty fine stuff.

Miller also compares Bates to Isaac Bashevis Singer, which I suppose is a fair comparison, though perhaps I thought that Bates is closer in style, at least, to J. D. Salinger or even Ernest Hemingway. There is a directness of speech, a journalistic clarity of style, to Bates' writing that seemed quite modern (if not Modern) and even American rather than English. Part of that American is likely my inability to read Bates' use of the Northamptonshire dialect as being anything but a rural American dialect, like something out of Faulkner or O'Connor or Twain:
But she did not think of it much. Apart from the heaviness of her body she felt strong and well. And the country was new to her, the fields strange and the river wider than she had ever dreamed.

It was the river, for some reason, which struck her most. 'Don't it git big?' she said. 'Ain't it wide?'

'Wide,' Albert said. 'You want to see the Rhine. This is only a brook.' And he went on to tell her of the Rhine. 'Take you quarter of hour to walk across. And all up the banks you see Jerry's grapes. Growing like twitch. And big boats on the river, steamers. I tell you. That's the sort o' river. You ought to see it. Like to see a river like that, wouldn't you?'


'Ah, it's a long way off. A thousand miles near enough.'
Bates' rural folks say "ain't," go fishin', drink hooch, and I cannot convince my inner reading voice to give these people anything but a backwoods American accent. Though once in a while someone says "blimey" or eats Yorkshire pudding.

Anyway, what's good or even great about these stories is that Bates has taken Chekhov's formula for a story (a man, a woman, and a reason for them to be unhappy) and run with it, peering deeply and objectively into his characters the while. A good example is "The Kimono," in which sense gives way to sensuality.
'Why don't you just come up and see the room?' she said. 'Just come up.'


'Come up and see it. It won't eat you.'

She opened the rear door of the shop and in a moment I was going upstairs behind her. She was not wearing any stockings. Her bare legs were beautifully strong and white. The room was over the cafe. It was a very good room for three and six. The new wall-paper was silver-leaved and the bed was white and looked cool.

And suddenly it seemed silly to go out into the heat again and wander about looking for Wade's Hotel when I could stay where I was.
The narrator is in London to interview for an engineering job, and cannot find the hotel he was advised to stay at. He's stumbled into Blanche's shop for an ice but the ice machine is broken. He spends the night in Blanche's arms, gets the job the next day and then returns home to marry Hilda, his fiance. Despite Hilda, our narrator cannot stay away from Blanche. He abandons Hilda, he abandons the prestigious engineering firm, and he abandons his family and friends to live above Blanche's shop until he is eventually abandoned by Blanche. If I was to compare "The Kimono" to a Chekhov story, I'd point to "Three Years," maybe.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

a statement of theme

Very often one comes across a more-or-less bald statement of theme in a novel's latter pages. This is the one I discovered today, from about page 705 of Le Côté de Guermantes (Moncrieff translation):
[...]the very purity of the Duchess’s language was a sign of limitation, and that, in her, both her intelligence and her sensibility had remained proof against all innovation. Here again, Mme. de Guermantes’s mind attracted me just because of what it excluded (exactly the content of my own thoughts) and by everything which by virtue of that exclusion, it had been able to preserve, that seductive vigour of the supple bodies which no exhausting necessity to think no moral anxiety or nervous trouble has deformed. Her mind, of a formation so anterior to my own, was for me the equivalent of what had been offered me by the procession of the girls of the little band along the seashore. Mme. de Guermantes offered me, domesticated and held in subjection by her natural courtesy, by the respect due to another person’s intellectual worth, all the energy and charm of a cruel little girl of one of the noble families round Combray who from her childhood had been brought up in the saddle, tortured cats, gouged out the eyes of rabbits, and; albeit she had remained a pillar of virtue, might equally well have been, a good few years ago now, the most brilliant mistress of the Prince de Sagan. Only she was incapable of realising what I had sought for in her, the charm of her historic name, and the tiny quantity of it that I had found in her, a rustic survival from Guermantes. Were our relations founded upon a misunderstanding which could not fail to become manifest as soon as my homage, instead of being addressed to the relatively superior woman that she believed herself to be, should be diverted to some other woman of equal mediocrity and breathing the same unconscious charm? A misunderstanding so entirely natural, and one that will always exist between a young dreamer like myself and a woman of the world, one however that profoundly disturbs him, so long as he has not yet discovered the nature of his imaginative faculties and has not acquired his share of the inevitable disappointments which he is destined to find in people, as in the theatre, in his travels and indeed in love.
Marcel is becoming disappointed that the glittering high society of Paris turns out to be populated by vain, envious, backbiting mediocrities who just happen to have money, good looks and famous names. Marcel is very soon to meet again with the Baron de Charlus, an inhabitant of Paris high society and a cousin of the Duchess discussed above. Marcel has not yet realized that Charlus is an infamous sexual predator.