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The bitch side of Jane Austen

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William_Makepeace_Thackeray.jpgWilliam Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair should be a mandatory complement to any Jane Austen reading assignment.  Focusing on the same social set in the same country and time period as Austen, Thackeray offers a view of the world depicted in Austen's novels that is less romantic, less hopeful and less moral than the perspective Austen proffers.

Thackeray is also unrelenting.

I'm a fast reader, and yet Vanity Fair claimed a month of my time.  The extended reading period is odd.  Without question, I enjoyed the book, and I found Thackeray's authorial voice entertaining.  I loved the depth that Thackeray added to my understanding of social dynamics in Britain at the time of Jane Austen.  And, as I passed the hours in Thackeray's company, I admired his wit, courage and antics.  

But the extent to which I dawdled finishing the book is testament to an inherent flaw: the plot didn't function.

The plot is the engine of a novel.  Just like an engine, a book's plot has to rev up to full speed.  As the story progresses, plots should gather momentum like a toboggan hurtling downhill.  The plot should pull the reader onto the toboggan for the plunge.  When the plot functions, a reader should reach a point - somewhere between halfway and three-quarters of the way through - where he or she feels compelled to finish the book.  With Vanity Fair, I never felt that compulsion.

A major reason for that failure is Thackeray's unrelenting bitchiness.  He is so unsympathetic to his characters that he has disabled the plot in two ways.  First, he successfully persuades the reader that the characters in Vanity Fair are not worth caring about.  Here, for instance, is Thackeray discoursing about Rebecca Sharp:

Miss Rebecca was not . . . in the lease kind or placable.  All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treat ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get.  The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.  Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion . . .This is certain, that if the world neglected Miss Sharp, she never was known to have done a good action in behalf of anybody . . . .
(p. 8.)  Of course, the world uses ill many good people who drink deeply and undeservedly from the cup of bitterness, but Thackeray early on dismisses any notion that Becky Sharp might belong in that category.  Nor is Thackeray satisfied to pass condemnatory judgment on Becky, but he jumps up and down on the point:

And, as we bring our characters forward, I will ask leave, as a man and a brother, not only to introduce the, but occasionally to step down from the platform, and talk about them: if they are good and kindly, to love them and shake them by the hand: if they are silly, to laugh at them confidentially in the reader's sleeve: if they are wicked and heartless, to abuse them in the strongest terms which politeness admits of.  Otherwise you might fancy it was I who was sneering at the practice of devotion, which Miss Sharp finds so ridiculous; . . . - whereas the laughter comes from one who has no reverence except for prosperity, and no eye for anything beyond success.  Such people there are living and flourishing in the world - Faithless, Hopeless, Charityless: let us have at them, dear friends, with might and main.                             
(pp. 70-71)  "[L]et us have at them . . . with might and main"?!  When an author recommends to his reader that he or she treat the protagonist thus, what can a reader do but comply?  And since Thackerey harangued me into not liking - and therefore not caring about - his characters, I never became invested in the resolution of their stories.

Second, Thackeray seems to have gotten so carried away being nasty to his characters that he neglected to plot adequately for them.  For example, when William Dobbin wakes up his commander, Mick O'Dowd, in the middle of the night and demands leave so that Dobbin can attend to a personal matter in England (i.e., Amelia Smedley's allegedly impending marriage), Dobbin's urgency generates momentum that Thackeray completely dissipates by failing to follow through on Dobbin's story line for more than a hundred pages.  

Similarly, after Becky's disgrace with Lord Steyne, she falls so thoroughly out of society that the end of the book can have no suspense with respect to her plot line: rehabilitation is impossible.  A compulsive drinker and gambler, living in flophouses, chased away and stumbling from city in city in Europe, Becky has neither the means nor the motivation to restore her reputation.  Thackeray has utterly gutted her plot possibilities both by casting her so low and by giving her a meager living from her ex-husband, Rawdon Crawley.  A woman with a regular income may wish the income were higher, but if she can survive on it, she'll adjust to it - which is what Becky does.  (By the same token, Thackeray ruins Becky's relationship with her son so early in the book that, by the end, when young Rawdon inherits the family money and title, reconciliation is unthinkable - yet another plot possibility for Becky eliminated.)

Thackeray's plotting misadventure is interesting and surprising because, as an author, he's self-aware (and voluble) on the topic of effective story telling, authorial motive and pacing.  Here he is, for example, on all three topics:

I have heard a brother of the story-telling trade, at Naples, preaching to a pack of good-for-nothing honest lazy fellows by the sea-shore, work himself up into such a rage and passion with some of the villains whose wicked deeds he was describing and inventing, that the audience could not resist it; and they and the poet together would burst out into a roar of oaths and execrations against the fictitious monster of the tale, so that the hat went round, and the bajocchi tumbled into it, in the midst of a perfect storm of sympathy.

At the little Paris theatres, on the other hand, you will not only hear the people yelling out, "Ah gredinAh monstre!" and cursing the tyrant of the play from the boxes; but the actors themselves positively refuse to play the wicked parts, such as those of the infames Anglais, brutal Cossacks, and what not, and prefer to appear at a smaller salary, in their real characters as loyal Frenchmen.  I set the two stories one against the other, so that you may see that it is not from mere mercenary motives that the present performer is desirous to show up and trounce his villains; but because he has a sincere hatred of them, which he cannot keep down, and which must find a vent in suitable abuse and bad language.                       

I warn my "kyind friends," then, that I am going to tell a story of harrowing villany and complicated - but, as I trust, intensely interesting - crime.  My rascals are no milk-and-water rascals, I promise you.  When we come to the proper places we won't spare fine language - No, no!  But when we are going over the quiet country we must perforce be calm.  A tempest in a slop-basin is absurd.  We will reserve that sort of thing for the mighty ocean and the lonely midnight.  The present Chapter is very mild.  Others - But we will not anticipate those.
(p. 70).  And, yet, "sincere" Thackeray's storytelling and pacing did not generate the momentum of Thackeray's "mercenary" brother in Naples.  Whether the problem was that, in his enthusiasm for demonstrating his "sincerity," Thackeray went overboard - or whether Thackeray simply enjoys being bitchy too much to resist when necessary for the sake of the plot - the outcome was the same.  Bitchiness can be diverting over the course of an evening - but after a month, it gets old.

(Image of William Makepeace Thackeray from The Free Library)

The Venetian gardener

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In Roberto Bolaño's novel, 2666, an acclaimed, reclusive novelist, Benno von Archimboldi works as a gardener in Venice. 

Bolaño acknowledges the unlikeliness of Archimboldi's day job - it sounds like a joke, like being a trash collector in Antarctica.  But, no, Bolaño maintains that Archimboldi really is a gardener in Venice, employed by the municipality to tend to its public parks, however few in number or small in square footage.

Having just traipsed around Venice for the first time, I have a fresh appreciation for the disbelief that ought to greet any claim to be a gardener in Venice: the city really doesn't have any plants. 

Indeed, I believe I have identified what has to have been Archimboldi's workplace.  Pictured above is the only public park space I saw: four or so trees, clustered with some shrubs, by the Ponte della Accademia.  An enterprising Venetian municipal official might consider installing a plaque, "Here worked the mysterious and brilliant novelist, Benno von Archimboldi, according to that other mysterious and brilliant novelist, Roberto Bolaño" - or setting up a walking tour of Venice's public plants, similar to Stockholm's tours of points of interest from the Millennium trilogy.

That said, having seen Venice (however briefly), I now feel that Archimboldi's job was not a joke: it was a metaphor. 

Venice is a has-been metropolis.  Its dwindling population survives on the skimpiest of economies: short of seasonal tourism, the city has no industry, no offices, no business, no livelihood.  Its buildings are constantly decaying; upkeep and restoration efforts cannot hope to outpace the destructiveness of the rising salt-water.  A monument to a Renaissance pinnacle, the city is currently close to a tomb, a symbol of the absurdity and hopelessness of resistance to mortality.

Nonetheless, Bolaño doesn't grieve Venice's fate.  Everything has its span of existence, and Bolaño doesn't respect attempts at exceeding these limits.  Throughout 2666, Bolaño mocks stabs at immortality, whether through his repeated references to burned books or his antipathy to fame:

Until that moment Archimboldi had never thought about fame.  Hitler was famous.  Göring was famous.  The people he loved or remembered fondly weren't famous, they just satisfied certain needs.  Döblin was his consolation.  Ansky was his strength.  Ingeborg was his joy.  The disappeared Hugo Halder was lightheartedness and fun.  His sister about whom he had no news, was his own innocence.  Of course, they were other things too.  Sometimes they were even everything all together, but not fame, which was rooted in delusion and lies, if not ambition.  Also, fame was reductive.  Everything that ended in fame and everything that issued from fame was inevitably diminished.  Fame's message was unadorned.  Fame and literature were irreconcilable enemies.
(p. 802.)  Like fame, immortality is "rooted in delusion and lies."  Immortality is almost always twinned with ambition.  And it is reductive; to be immortal is to be diminished, the color stripped from the Greek statues, the music lost from the Greek dramas, the social context irrevocably severed from the surviving fragment. 

For Bolaño, literature is not about authors who reverberate through the centuries.  Rather, tthe point of literature is to help us to accept mortality, to benefit from its gifts, and to husband our energies so that we can avoid wasteful resistance to the inevitable.  In 2666, Bolaño suggests that mortality doesn't diminish life, but resistance to it does. 

Thus, he sends Archimboldi into the world's most beautiful monument to such resistance, Venice, to nurture life and growth in the midst of this blindingly gorgeous hollowness.  The task Bolaño gives Archimboldi is one either futility or nobility. 

In any event, it is the task of any brilliant novelist today.

Shakespeare: climate change denier

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Titania&Oberon.jpgI have one question for climate change deniers: have you considered the possibility that climate change-related phenomena are the work of fairies?

Shakespeare makes a strong argument for this position in A Midsummer Night's Dream.  When confronted by her husband, Oberon, with the accusation that she's taken the mortal, Theseus, as her lover, Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, retorts:

    These are the forgeries of jealousy:
    And never, since the middle summer's spring,
    Met we . . . .
    But with thy brawls thou hast disturb'd our sport.

In Plain English: "You're nuts with jealousy, Oberon.  I never had a chance to get it on with the man because you were constantly interfering."

    Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
    As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
    Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
    Have every pelting river made so proud
    That they have overborne their continents:

IPE:  "As a consequence, the winds have blown fogs from the ocean onto the land, causing the rivers to overflow."

    The ox hath therefore stretch'd his yoke in vain,
    The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
    Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard;
    The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
    And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
    The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud,
    And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
    For lack of tread are undistinguishable:

IPE:  "The fields have been flooded, crops lost, fields untilled."

    The human mortals want their winter here;
    No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
    Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
    Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
    That rheumatic diseases do abound:

IPE:  "The humans have ceased singing and blessing the night, so the moon is in a bad mood and causing disease to accompany the flood."

    And thorough this distemperature we see
    The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
    Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
    And on old Hiems' thin and icy crown
    An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
    Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
    The childing autumn, angry winter, change
    Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
    By their increase, now knows not which is which:

IPE:  "All of which disturbance is causing the seasons to change.  Frost is coming in spring, and buds are blooming in winter.  The seasons are swapping characteristics, and nobody knows which is which."

    And this same progeny of evils comes
    From our debate, from our dissension;
    We are their parents and original.

IPE:  And this climatic mess is OUR FAULT.  Because you (Oberon) and I (Titania) are having a fight, the climate is going to hell.

Shakespeare's description of current climatic events is so compelling in its accuracy that I can only  think that his diagnosis of its cause is equally astute.  Rather than perpetuating the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, shouldn't the nations of the world invest in some marital counseling for Titania and Oberon, so they can stop fighting, and we can enjoy normal seasons again?

(Image of Titania and Oberon from BBC's website)

Giving chance a chance

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Richard_Powers.jpgIn his most recent novel, Generosity, Richard Powers expresses frustration at the role of the novelist:

I'm caught like Buridan's ass, starving to death between allegory and realism, fact and fable, creative and nonfiction. I see now exactly who these people are and where they came from. But I can't quite make out what I'm to do with them.
Michael Dirda, writing in The New York Review of Books, quotes this passage, and then continues:

He [Powers] confesses that he would really like to write the kind of story that "from one word to the next, breaks free. The kind that invents itself out of meaningless detail and thin air. The kind in which there's no choice like chance."
Dirda doesn't think much of Powers's aspiration - he calls it "more portentous than clear" - but I felt an immediate intuitive connection with Powers.  Having just finished a novel, I am currently traveling around the world in a relaxed and unplanned way.  Where am I going?  Wherever my friends or family are - or wherever my curiosity takes me.  When am I going?  Whenever it's convenient for my friends or family to see me.  How long will I be traveling?  I don't know.  What will I do afterwards?  I don't know.  

Why am I undertaking such a journey?  To this question, I have a solid answer: because I felt like it.  I had a strong, un-ignorable sense that this trip was the right way to fill my time at this stage in my life.  

Up until now, I've passed my days in a highly self-directed manner.  I decided what to do, and then I did it.  I wasn't easily distractable (I'm not one of those people who goes online to look up the spelling of a word and ends up frittering away two hours on trivial explorations).

For reasons that I can't explain, but which exerted powerful visceral force on me, I felt convinced that now I must change my approach.  I must surrender self-direction and float, like a jellyfish, wherever the ocean currents take me.  I must allow my life, from one day to the next, to break free; to invent itself out of meaningless detail and thin air.  Rather than deciding what to do and then doing it, I must accept that there's no choice like chance.

Powers' dilemma as a novelist is no different from anyone's challenge in crafting his or her life.  Humans make sense of their lives in stories, and each of us is, in a sense, penning a lived novel with our life choices.  Each of us is caught between allegory and realism, as we struggle to choose between actions that are symbolically meaningful and those that are practical.  Each of us ping-pongs between fact and fable, as we select the bases for our decisions.  Each of us struggles to keep creativity and non-fiction in balance in our lives.

I have just written a novel that was more planned than anything I've previously written.  I didn't allow myself the luxury of not "quite mak[ing] out what . . . to do" with my characters.  Practical in the extreme, the novel was strategically constructed to sell.  It's a fable that studiously ignores inconvenient facts; a creative act that required all the strength of a daily grind.  

Maya_Alexandri_swinging_from_a_tree.jpgLike Powers, I felt some frustration with this process.  But the character at loose ends by the end was me.  And the story that I wanted to allow to break free was mine.  For the sake of satisfaction in my life, and for the benefit of my writing, I needed to (re)invent myself out of everything in the world that I never allowed to distract me.  

Unscheduled time, chance, joblessness, disconnection from the rat race - these are the flotsam and jetsam of the modern world.  I am discovering what stories they yield . . . while I swing from a tree.

(Image of Richard Powers from Minnesota Public Radio website)

It's Our Turn to Read

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Michela Wrong's book, It's Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower is not readily available in Kenya.  As Jeffrey Gettleman explains in The New York Review of Books:

But what could be a sorrier commentary on the state of Kenya today than the fact that it is exceedingly difficult even to find this book in Kenya? It's probably easier to buy an ounce of cocaine in Nairobi--or a stash of illicit ivory--than a copy of It's Our Turn to Eat.

Booksellers are terrified to touch it. The very culture of corruption that Wrong reveals--the vast, ethnic-based patronage networks and the danger of exposing Kenya's leaders--is still as firmly entrenched as ever. Most of the men who fill the pages of her exposé, from the current president, Mwai Kibaki, on down, are still in power. Kenyan booksellers are afraid of provoking them and getting sued for libel. About the only place you can find this book nowadays is in the middle of Nairobi's traffic-plugged streets, sold by street boys with little to lose. The American embassy and a Kenyan church group are subsidizing the sale of the book, trying to get copies in the hands of as many Kenyans as possible, which is how the street boys get theirs, and how I got mine.

Gettleman is right to decry the situation and to view the book's inaccessibility as a symptom of the power structure it condemns.  That said, the underlying context of the book's lack of availability is potentially more debilitating and sad than the political pressure being exerted to keep the book out of Kenyans' hands.

As Kenyans have told me, and as I've mentioned in a previous blog post, "There's no reading culture in Africa."  Discussions with numerous Kenyans, including Tim Banda of Kenya's leading newspaper, The Nation, have suggested several reasons for this state of affairs:

  • books are too expensive
  • literature is not part of the school curriculum in Kenya
  • many Kenyans are only two or three generations removed from oral societies, and habits of literacy haven't taken root
  • people grow up reading only text books
  • reading is a solitary activity that's seen as anti-social in Kenya's communal society
  • most books are for and by white people and don't interest Kenyans
In this context, private book stores exist largely to source text books for schools.  (Indeed, one of the largest general interest bookstores in Nairobi is called Textbook Center.)  General readers are not the bookstores' core constituency, and It's Our Turn to Eat is simply not a book relevant to the mainstay of the bookstores' consumers.  Political expediency aside, most bookstores have as little business incentive to stock It's Our Turn to Eat as they do to carry the collected works of Bertolt Brecht (which, though I've not read It's Our Turn to Eat, might be more politically empowering for Kenya's populace).

Another aspect of Kenya's book-selling market that bears on the issue is the predominance of Indians.  The major booksellers in Nairobi - Textbook Center, Savanni's, Book Stop and African Book Service - are all Indian-owned.  And although they have substantial economic stakes in Kenya, Indians have been largely marginalized by the tribal conflict that characterizes Kenyan politics.  In the current struggle between the dominant Kikuyu tribe and insurgent Luo tribe (represented by President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga respectively), the Indians are on the sidelines or behind the scenes.  Given this political posture, bookstores in Kenya may be declining to stock It's Our Turn to Eat, not because of the political risk of angering the politicians criticized in the book, but out of a reflexive impulse on the part of the Indian community in Kenya to avoid injecting itself into tribal tussles.  (That said, I saw It's Our Turn to Eat for sale at Book Stop.)

Finally, making an interesting gloss on the assertion that "there's no reading culture in Kenya," is the indisputable fact that newspaper readership in Kenya is high.  From my informal inquiries on the issue, I found that most people who don't read books nonetheless read the newspaper thoroughly each day.  Kenyans are already familiar with the story of It's Our Turn to Eat from news coverage at the time.  As Gettleman noted (about a different scandal on Kenya's political scene):
The front pages of Kenya's biggest papers alternated between pictures of the well-coiffed politicians incredulously denying the charges and people in the hinterland with their rib cages exposed. None of this is secret. There have been countless studies of corruption, thousands of headlines about it, and intense scrutiny of Kenya from the World Bank and organizations like Transparency International, which recently ranked Kenya the most corrupt nation in East Africa. A survey done a few years ago indicated that the average urban Kenyan pays sixteen bribes a month.
Although It's Our Turn to Eat no doubt provides information, perspectives and analysis different from the contemporaneous new reports, to a large extent, Kenyans know what's going on in their country.  They tend to be politically engaged and energized.  (Nonetheless, they are stymied in their options for realizing good governance.)  Knowing this, booksellers in Nairobi may be opting to downplay It's Our Turn to Eat because it's a non-Kenyan (white person)'s account of events in Kenya that everyone has already learned from the country's (black) press.

All of which is to say, notwithstanding Kenya's corruption and political machinations, what's ultimately keeping It's Our Turn to Eat from bookstore shelves may not be strong-arm political tactics, but popular will: Kenyans have yet to say that it's their turn to read.

(Image of Michela Wrong from The New York Times)  

Sonnet XX: WTF?

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Tilda_Swinton_as_Male_Orlando.jpgShakespeare's Sonnet XX confounds me.  It praises a person whose gorgeous face, heart and personality - with its absence of womanly faults - captures the narrator's passion . . . though this same person's cock checks the narrator's impulse for sexual consummation of his love.  Here's the poem:

A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

I first encountered Sonnet XX at a vulnerable moment, just before bed time, and I naturally assumed that in my exhaustion, I'd lost track of some critical explanatory phrase in the poem.  But an immediate reread suggested that the eyebrow-raising implications weren't a function of my readiness for slumberland.  Indeed, a basic Google search revealed countless others with raised eyebrows.  So provocative is Sonnet XX that Prince might have done well to set its verses to music instead of expending effort to write "Controversy."

Interestingly, more than one commentator seems to think that the poem is an admission of Shakespeare's homosexuality.  Personally, I find that theory absurd.  For starters, such speculation superimposes a patina of modern norms on Shakespeare's Elizabethan consciousness (e.g., that loving another man makes a man gay).  We barely understand how gender and sexually are socially constructed today; to project our incomplete understanding backwards 400 years is at best arrogant and at worst idiotic.

But more importantly, Sonnet XX isn't so much homosexual as it is weird.  For gay men, the love object isn't womanly; a gay male pin-up is hot because he's masculine.  Sonnet XX, on the other hand, idolizes a man with a womanly appearance - or, at a minimum, an Orlando-style androgynous appearance that appeals to men and women ("Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth"). 

Moreover, unlike a homosexual man, the narrator of Sonnet XX is decidedly against sex with his beloved: the narrator is "defeated" by his adored's prick; it brings the narrator's purpose "to nothing."  Instead, the narrator urges his beloved to make love with women, while giving his heart to the narrator. 

This model of love isn't homosexual; rather, it seems to lack a modern analogy.  Same-sex love affairs in modern society aren't typically sexless.  Nor do we usually idolize the looks of one gender when they appear on the other; quite the opposite, especially in the case of men.  From Boy George, to Michael Jackson, to Jaye Davidson (who played Dil in The Crying Game), men who look like women tend to make folks uncomfortable nowadays.

In fact, the very eagerness of modern readers to class Sonnet XX with homosexual literature reflects a variety of discomfort or insecurity with the prospect of a same-sex love relationship beyond our comprehension or experience.  But while the impulse to tame the scary, irrational potentialities of sex by naming, categorizing and analyzing is a positive one, we lose the chance to recognize, explore and appreciate the breadth of human experience if we insist on incorrect classification.

Human love is vaster, more capricious and more irrepressible than Harlequin romance.  And our capacities for loving in multi-faceted and bizarre ways is among our species' the most remarkable and admirable traits.  As G.W. Bowerstock observes in a New York Review of Books review of two books exploring Greek pederasty:

The sexual life of the ancient Greeks was as variegated and inventive as its resplendent culture. It was neither consistent nor uniform.  To this day it stubbornly resists all modern ideologies and prejudices, and yet it had its own principles of decency.  In sex, as in so much else, the ancient Greeks were unique.
Sonnet XX tantalizes with its glimpse of a variegated and inventive sexual life, one neither consistent nor uniform, one that resists modern ideologies and prejudices, for Shakespeare and his Elizabethan brethren.  We might consider to what extent their sexual openness made the Greeks and the Elizabethan not merely unique, but also great.

(Image of Tilda Swinton playing Orlando from Sally Potter's website)

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