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Becky Sharp, c'est Thackeray

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Melusina.jpgI've already blogged about how William Makepeace Thackeray's bitchiness to Becky Sharp fouls up his plotting in Vanity Fair.  But the more I think about his lack of compassion for Becky, the more compelled I am to take issue with his behavior simply as an affront to women and the poor. 

Thackeray creates Becky as a creature of few advantages.  Her mother dies when she's very young, and her father dies of delirium tremens when she is a teenager.  Moreover,

[Rebecca] had the dismal precocity of poverty.  Many a dun she had talked to, and turned away from her father's door; many a tradesman she had coaxed and wheedled into good-humour, and into the granting of one meal more.  She sate commonly with her father, who was very proud of her wit, and heard the talk of many of his wild companions - often but ill-suited for a girl to hear.  But she never had been a girl, she said; she had been a woman since she was eight years old.
(p. 10.) 

Thackeray bounces orphan Becky from one demeaning environment (Miss Pinkerton's School) to another (the Sedley house, Sir Pitt Crawley's house in Queen's Crawley, Miss Crawley's house in London), marries her to a gambler solider without a penny, promptly revokes the soldier's inheritance, and then gleefully watches Becky make do (dishonestly) in genteel society.

Social climbing (particularly in Becky's time and place), of course, is vulgar, and people who do it well are invariably insincere, insecure, shallow and vain.  (Becky is all these things.) 

And, yes, vanity is a sin.  But one of the great innovations of Judeo-Christian ethics is proportionality: Inspector Javert, the policeman - not Jean Valjean, the thief - is the sinner in Les Misérables because hounding a man for a lifetime is a disproportionate punishment for stealing a loaf of bread when a man is starving.

In the same way, casting vanity on par with murder and cannibalism is hardly in the enlightened Judeo-Christian spirit.  Here, for example, is Thackeray giving an account of Becky after she's been ruined:

In describing this siren [Rebecca Sharp], singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all round, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the monster's hideous tail above water?  No!  Those who like may peep down under the waves that are pretty transparent, and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, and curling round corpses; but above the water-line, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish moralist in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie?  When, however, the siren disappears and dives below, down among the dead men, the water of course grows turbid over her, and it is labour lost to look into it ever so curiously.  They look pretty enough when they sit upon a rock, twanging their harps and combing their hair, and beckon to you to come and hold the looking glass; but when they sink into their native element, depend on it those mermaids are about no good, and we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, revelling [sic] and feasting on their wretched pickled victims.  And so, when Becky is out of the way, be sure that she is not particularly well employed, and that the less that is said about her doings is in fact the better.
(p. 620-21 (emphasis added).)  

I bridle reading this indictment.  Becky, without question, exploits those foolish enough to allow her to do so - her lady companion, Briggs, and her landlord, Raggles, in particular (both of whom she ruins financially).  She's beastly to her husband, Rawdon Crawley, and utterly cruel to her son. 

But, frankly, her crimes are the usual run-of-the-mill misdeeds of the impoverished.  The fever pitch of Thackeray's accusations is unwarranted.  (Besides which, his constant excuses that propriety prevents him from recounting her bloody - as opposed to economic and emotional - crimes is scarcely credible and makes the whole passage seem gratuitous.)

Thackeray's excessiveness surprises me because I believe he loves Becky Sharp (in contrast to Amelia Sedley, who I think Thackeray comes close to despising).  I don't think Thackeray would've made Becky so beautiful, intelligent, witty and resourceful - nor would he have given her an adventure with so many men and opportunities - if he didn't adore her.   

And yet, I feel that, in spite of himself - in spite of Thackeray's certainty that those of high birth and spotless reputation are as decrepit in their moral conduct as those of their opposites - Thackeray can't really accept a smart, resourceful, poor woman who isn't a monster.  Cerebrally or ideologically, he knows that poor women aren't deserving of especial reprimand; but viscerally Thackeray connects them with terror.  (As I discussed in another prior post, I think Thackeray attributes too much power to women, which may relate to this fear he manifests in respect of Becky.)

Thackeray's treatment of Becky also put me in mind of another novel about a rapacious, social climbing woman, a woman who exploits and abuses everyone she can, a woman who comes from crushing poverty and who dies desperate and penniless.  The book is The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa.

The Bad Girl is based on Madame Bovary, an ambitious book with which to compare one's work; and yet Vargas Llosa more than lives up to the company in which he places himself. 

The reason is his compassion for his bad girl.  Despite all her bad behavior, Vargas Llosa made me believe that poverty - not original sin or some other form of damnation - had tarnished her.  With this tactic, Vargas Llosa is not simply being sentimental: he's making his story work.  Although I never came to like the bad girl, I did feel emotionally engaged in her fate (and that of her steadfast lover) in a way that never happened with Vanity Fair.  I read The Bad Girl in a matter of days (not a month, like Vanity Fair), and the bad girl's scar of poverty has resonated with me for years after I finished the book. 

Speculating about the sources of authorial limitations and strengths is always risky.  Nonetheless, I'll hazard the following guess:  Vargas Llosa has compassion for the bad girl because he's well-acquainted with his naughty side; Thackeray thought Becky a monster because she was too close to what he didn't want to know about himself. 

(Image of Melusina from Wikicommons

Death comes to literary dialogue

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Roberto_Bolaño2.jpgPart of what makes literature "literature" - instead of, say, verbiage of the variety one finds in fine print, junk mail and street signs - is that it's in dialogue with other literary works.  Mario Vargas Llosa's, The Bad Girl, wouldn't exist without Gustave Flaubert's, Madame Bovary, nor Jose Saramoga's, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, without the New Testament, but "past performance is no guarantee of future earnings" is impervious to any of the foregoing (to its - and our - detriment).

Because of this dialogue, fictional books featuring fictional author-characters often provide examples of the fictional authors' work.  A.S. Byatt wrote an entire oeuvre of Romantic poetry for the fictional poets Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash in her novel, PosessionThe World According to Garp, to take another example, contains substantial excerpts from T.S. Garp's fiction.  Without these excerpts, LaMotte, Ash and Garp might exist as characters, but readers would be without any idea of how they, as writers, participate in literary dialogue (although readers see how their creators, Byatt and John Irving respectively, engage in such dialogue).  In creative writing MFA-speak, without these glimpses of LaMotte's, Ash's and Garp's creative output, Byatt and Irving would merely be telling us about their writing, rather than showing us.

Perhaps surprisingly - or, rather, unsurprisingly, since Jonathan Lethem, in his New York Times review of 2666 notes that Roberto "Bolaño seems to make sport of violating nearly all of the foremost writing-school rules" - in 2666, Roberto Bolaño gives us a writer-protagonist sans examples of his writing.  

Benno von Archimboldi, the nom de plume of Hans Reiter, is a post-WWII German novelist who, by the late 1990's and early 2000's, is routinely nominated for the Nobel Prize.  

British and European critics are obsessed with Achimboldi - they fight academic battles over him in journals and at conferences.  At one point in 2666, Jean-Luc Pelletier, a French von Achimboldi scholar, remarks

that it was surprising, or that it would never cease to surprise him, the way Archimboldi depicted pain and shame.
"Delicately," said Espinoza [a colleague].
"That's right," said Pelletier.  "Delicately."
(p. 143.)  At another moment, Jacob Bubis, Archimboldi's publisher and a legendary editor, awakens his wife in the middle of the night to declare that they must publish Archimboldi's new novel.

"Is it good?" asked [Mrs. Bubis], half asleep and not bothering to sit up.
"It's better than good," said Bubis, pacing the room.
. . . .
At the first light of day [Bubis] woke his wife again and made her promise that when he was no longer head of the publishing house, his euphemism for his own death, she wouldn't abandon Archimboldi.
"Abandon him in what sense?" asked [Mrs. Bubis], still half asleep.
"We have to protect him," he added.
(p. 815.)

Such is the information with which the reader of 2666 must make do, on which basis - on which faith - the reader must accept Archimboldi, the character and the writer.  My question is: why?  Why create a writer of such towering importance - to literary history (in 2666's fictional world) and to the story of 2666 - and simultaneously deprive the reader of any inkling of this writer's literary works?  

Indeed, Bolaño goes farther than denying Archimboldi any opportunity to show readers his fiction and the dialogue it sparks with other literary works; Bolaño all but tells us that such dialogue is beyond Archimboldi.  Largely unschooled and unread, Archimboldi grows up with a single critical text: Animals and Plants of the European Coastal Region, from which he learns about seaweed.  The only other book that Archimboldi reads during his formative years is Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival.  How can a writer with such a sparse and scattershot familiarity with the canon produce literature?

With Archimboldi, Bolaño seems to want to create a sui generis author - a novelist who comes out of no literary tradition, who owes no literary debts, who eschews literature as he conquers it.  

This conceit is obviously the stuff of myth, but perhaps it relates to the way Bolaño saw himself: a high-school drop-out, Bolaño (according to Francisco Goldman in his review in The New York Review of Books) "blame[d] gaps in his subsequent self-education on the layout of the shelving in bookstores that prevented him from shoplifting certain books."  The authorial persona Bolaño cultivated (in the words of Benjamin Kunkel, writing in The London Review of Books) is one of  "a writer . . . who writes as if literature were all that mattered, and at the same time writes in a distinctly unliterary way."  

That said, I don't believe that Archimboldi (intentionally or subliminally) is a cast in Bolaño's mold.  For one thing, Bolaño, unlike Archimboldi, does not abstain from dialogue with literature; on the contrary, his work is rife with references to literary and other artistic works.  Bolaño is not without literary forebears: he openly acknowledges the influence of - and withstands comparison to - Julio Cortázar (especially the novel Hopscotch) and Jorge Luis Borges.  Bolaño's autodidactic education might have been scattershot, but it's anything but sparse; Bolaño's literary dialogue may be idiosyncratic, but it's at the core of his work - he couldn't write "as if literature were all that mattered" otherwise.

For another thing, Bolaño apparently makes a habit of writing about writers whose work remains opaque to the reader.  Kunkel describes  Bolaño's story "Enrique Martín," the eponymous character of which is a giftless poet about whose poetry the narrator "speaks . . . only with pity and contempt."  Similarly, in Bolaño's novel, The Savage Detectives, two poets go searching for a third poet, Cesárea Tinajero, whose body of work has virtually vanished.  Archimboldi is simply one of many Bolaño writer-characters whose literary works remain (literally) unwritten.  (Whereas Bolaño himself is the prolific progenitor of one book of poems, three story collections and ten published novels, along with at least two novels found among his papers at the time of his death.)

Bolaño's choice to leave Archimboldi mute to literary dialogue is plainly more than an amplification of Bolaño's own (possible) personal myths . . . which is not to say that the choice is rational.  Patterns that emerge across a writer's oeuvre are often not rational, but visceral, emotional, illogical or subliminal.  My guess is that - consciously or unconsciously - the writer-without-an-oeuvre (of which Archimboldi is Bolaño's supreme example) served Bolaño as a symbol of mortality.  To any fool who comforts him or herself with the thought that the human body will fail but the written word endures, Bolaño's oeuvre-less authors stand as a sharp reminder that, however much literature may be all that matters, the impermanence of life is a fact that overwhelms all other priorities and silences all dialogues.

(Image of Roberto Bolaño from The Telegraph)     

The Bad Girl introduces Madame Bovary to Freud

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Mario Vargas Llosa's novel, The Bad Girl, is a fabulous read, despite the sorry translation of the title.  In Spanish, Vargas Llosa's Madame Bovary-inspired romp is called Travesuras de la Niña Mala, which roughly translates as "The Naughty Tricks of the Bad Girl."  The Bad Girl isn't half as fun (or marketable) a title.

But the English-language title can't dampen the liveliness that Vargas Llosa infuses into Madame Bovary's plot and (especially) characterization.  This vivacity derives from two factors.  First, Vargas Llosa has empathy -- perhaps even too much -- for his Bad Girl and Ricardo, the stand-ins for Emma and Charles Bovary.  Unlike Flaubert, who famously wrote, "Bovary bores me, Bovary irritates me, the vulgarity of the subject gives me bouts of nausea" (quoted in The New Yorker), Vargas Llosa is plainly aroused by his Bad Girl.  Her travesuras are -- far from being boring, irritating and vulgar -- something close to the meaning of life.  As for Ricardo, he's no pathetic medical-officer-masquerading-as-a-doctor, no joke-hat wearing, club-foot tormenting butt of the author's derision.  To the contrary, Ricardo is fidelity personified, the yin to Bad Girl's yang, the oppositional force without which the Bad Girl's travesuras have no power. 

Second, Vargas Llosa has the benefit of writing post-Freud.  Characterization in the age of the psychotherapist is, quite naturally, psychological.  Flaubert's characters, however, are psycholgoically flat.  We see -- ad nauseum we see -- their actions, but we are not privy to any depth of thought, and so their actions pile up, page after page, without our caring (until the accretion suddenly collapses Emma's world in the last 50 pages, and we do care -- we are horrified -- at the speed and force of the tornado that spins her to death).

In places, Flaubert implies that the superficiality of his characters' thought is the very reason we should condemn them.  Seeing "Amor nel cor" (love in my heart) on his seal, Rodolphe realizes that it's the wrong message to imprint on his "I'm dumping you" letter to Emma.  "Oh well, who cares!" he concludes, before smoking three pipes and going to sleep (p. 189).

But Flaubert's psychologically bereft characterization is not entirely by design; it's also of necessity.  Pre-Freud, people didn't think with the same self-awareness as they do now.  Actions didn't demand the same kinds of explanations -- I did it because my parents were mean to me; I suffered in my youth -- as they do now.  Vargas Llosa's Bad Girl therefore has a backstory that allows the reader, if inclined, to excuse her.

Of course, the Bad Girl's sob story is no excuse.  Going from rags-to-riches is no exemption from the simple respect of human dignity that we owe others, regardles of their status.  Nor does childhood hardship waive the duties of maturity.  Vargas Llosa believes this (and punishes the Bad Girl accordingly), but he doesn't really feel it (I suspect -- his Bad Girl has him wrapped around her finger).  Still, the richness of the Bad Girl's psychological development, however halting, and the excruciating psychological pain Ricardo suffers -- touchingly rendered -- make the story a page turner where Madame Bovary is (in parts) a soporific.

And, of course, there's the sex.   

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the The Bad Girl category.

The Aspern Papers is the previous category.

The Catcher in the Rye is the next category.

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