Politics and Society

Friday, December 30, 2011

Arrgh: A partial review

   I am now in about the middle of Orhan Pamuk's Snow (2001, Eng. trsl. 2004)) and like many others I find it a slog. It is not exactly boring, for the Anatolian cultural tour and the socio-political dynamics are themselves interesting enough, in the abstract (as they must be since the writer only addresses them so), as is the historical-moral fable being played out like a passion play. But that's it. It is like watching an old fashioned theatrical production - the kind towns put on for visiting tourists to provide a sense of the local culture's background and history; NOT its current state of affairs.
   The themes and issues are timely enough and important in themselves, but Pamuk's treatment of them seems ham-handed at best. The characters are more like cartoon figures than people, the scenes are like overly dramatized stage sets and the storyline is just implausible, because the characters aren't realized as people. Instead, they are stalking horses for the tumult of ideas and political and religious impulses that they wear like fashionable winter coats.
   Some critics (see amazon's reviews) say the broad and ever increasing dis-satisfaction with Pamuk, of which my view is a part, is a result of a Western prejudice. I doubt it. Others say that the translation may be at fault; but after six years and lots of evidence, it seems the translation (whatever its flaws) is at least as good as anything Pamuk has to offer in the original Turkish. Many native speakers/reviewers have come forward to testify that it doesn't get any better in the mother tongue. Truth might just be the old dodger is a better journalist and social observer than fiction writer. For example:

             "Then Ka and the hook-nosed agent got back into the army truck and set
             off down the road. A pack of timid dogs walked alongside them, but the
             only other signs of life were the election banners and the anti-suicide
             posters. As they continued along their way, Ka's eyes were drawn to the
             restless children and anxious fathers twitching their closed curtains to catch
             a glimpse of the passing truck." (Pg 191)

   Riddle me this, Batman. If there were no signs of life, were do the children and anxious fathers fit in? BTW, since when do election banners and posters constitute signs of life? (Are we to understand that the truck, which they entered from a building, was in a wasteland without habitations, streets or other signs of human presence? If not, then again, what's with the no signs of life angle?) And why would any writer intent on describing a lifeless scene follow this in the next sentence with the acknowledgment of the presence of the children, etc.? Was he even thinking about the scene when he wrote this? Frankly, I think not!
   Pamuk is likely a nice guy. So is Al Gore. But they both received Nobel prizes for shoddy polemical  work done in areas of expertise in which they have no claim, no right and no real interest.

If I didn't know better, I would guess that this kind of writing is what Pfeiffer gave up writing Doonesbury comic strips to pursue.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

“The Transcendence of the Ego,” by Jean Paul Sartre

The Ontological Foundation of Petulance
A Meditation

   Written in 1936, some 5-6 years before he took time out from his day job at the French Resistance field office and began to work on his famous treatise, Being and Nothingness (1943), Sartre wrote the remarkable essay, “The Transcendence of the Ego.” It is a seminal work of existential Metaphysics, a refutation of Solipsism, and a document of liberation, all at the same time. The last description fulfills his own stated intention of separating Sartre from the putative doctrinal error of his teacher, Edmund Husserl, who had, in his own philosophical investigations, recently taken a regressive step backwards from “pure” phenomenological description to, in Sartre’s view, merely speculative Metaphysics. He committed this unpardonable sin when he went beyond the bounds of pure Phenomenology – his own creation - and posited a transcendent, concrete Ego as the actual, albeit passive, subjective unity of experience.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Review of “Die Erlkønigin,”-- a poem by Patrick Gillespie

   Up In Vermont, there is a talented poet and amateur, but thorough, literary scholar named Patrick Gillespie, who calls himself Vermont Poet (He is also a blogger – his blog is listed among my favorites). This moniker would be a might presumptuous for most anyone, especially for those who could not say that they have produced at least some fine poems, or at least one great poem of out-standing quality, beauty and charm. This essay is based on the conviction (as I hope to show) that Patrick has earned his self-proclaimed title.

   About a month ago, apropos of nothing, and browsing web-sites I some-times visit, I came upon this post at [poemshape], which is an audio re-cording of Patrick reading his own poem, “Die Erlkønigin,” for public appreciation. [This poem], he said with conviction, was one of the best he has ever written. I listened to the recording and enjoyed it. I read the poem and loved it, and then read the Goethe poem on which it is based - a handy, dual-language link was kindly supplied – and researched the Danish legend (folklore) upon which Goethe had drawn in creating the original, and was fascinated. All the while, the poem was in my head, and in my imagination, and (parts of it, at least) almost on my tongue –and I agreed! It is, certainly, one of the best that he has ever written (Naturally enough but sadly still, I do not feel the same about all the others), as it is also, I believe, one of the best anyone in America has written in many years!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Master, (2004), by Colm Toibin: A Review

    Colm Toibin, the contemporary Irish author of four previous novels and various other writings, has produced a very interesting and enjoyable study of personality, character and Art in The Master. A portrait of the artist – the great American novelist, Henry James - as a middle-aged man, a biographical essay on sensibility and emotional and aesthetic distance, an historical fiction of life informing Art (and vise-versa); it is all of these and more. The 'more' is a wonderful story. For all my doubts going in, I have to say, this seems an unqualified success, and an excellent novel.   My initial hesitation concerned what I take to be a growing trend among novelists to stuff their novels full of actual (i.e. historical) personages as a sign that they are dealing with the real world in their Art. Personally, and generally, I find it aesthetically unconvincing, though the portraits of J. Edgar and Lenny Bruce, for instance, were technical highlights of descriptive fiction in DeLillo’s Underworld. The presence of actual people in fiction is far too often a red flag signaling rather an insecurity, if not an outright capitulation, of imagination.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Birthday Gift

It's times like these that I realize that the great poet (Donne) knew what he was talking about when he said, "No Man is an Island". For even as  I am alone in Providence, yet I am not alone in Providence; for I have family and friends, who think well enough of me to take the time to reach out. I thank you all!  I am humbled by the gesture.
   I took the day off - even an unemployed person can do that - and amused myself with books (Willam Gass, "In Search of Form" and Toibin's "The Master"), philosophical arguments (on-line, mainly) and with poetry (which I still love best). After receiving phone calls and paying some bills, I went out to the bookstore to spend a gift sent from grpagrhr (my Dad). Turns out, they had a sale ( I had no idea) which was extended only because of a calendar mistake - and I took advantage: now "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" (Pessl, 2006), "Snow" (Pamuk, 2004) and "Varieties of Interpretation"  (Mazzeo, 1978) will be on my reading - critiquing - list, thanks to the real master. I feel blessed.
   I have enjoyed my day, in my own way, and I THANK YOU ALL. I love you, too! And I want to give you something which you might not have seen coming: A poem, one that I wrote, years ago, but which remains the  best part of myself:
                                                 First Snow and a Child
While feathery wisps of whiteness swirl
And whisper like a fear,
A child leans on his heels to see
The blur infest the air,
Like icy ashes on his brow
And dust upon his hair,
The white buds bead to droplets, cold,
That shut a wondrous stare.

May it give you some of the joy it gives me!
   Why today? why any day? I guess I am trying to climb out of my shell and share with the people I call family and friends just what it is that makes me me. A birthday just seems like an especially appropriate time to do that.
   Again, thank you all for thinking of me, and thank you for your love and support. I hope and believe that you know that it does not go unnoticed or unappreciated.
   Who's better'n you? Ain't nobody!
Thanks again,
Kevin (28 years old and still counting --or learning to count, or sumt'n.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Stephen Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish” (2011)

                                              from the New Yorker Magazine, November 14, 2011

   Stephen Millhauser is an American writer with at least ten novels, three short-story collections and a Pulitzer prize (1997) already under his belt. At 68, he would seem to be a writer of the old guard, but his fiction is probably more popular (even trending, if not trendy) now than at any time in his career. This New Yorker story helps to explain why!

  Stephen Millhauser’s  “Miracle Polish” is the story of an unnamed man’s experience of the bizarre, even the wonderful, when he grudgingly purchases a bottle of glass cleaner, specifically for mirrors, from a (mysterious?) door-to-door salesman. After dismissively squirreling the bottle away in a drawer, he comes to use it eventually only to discover it produces a marvelous effect.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Pale Fire (1962), by Vladimir Nabokov A Review

"Et in Arcadia ego"
   In two renaissance memento mori paintings by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), the above Latin phrase appears on the side of an ancient tomb, intrusively and inscrutably situated in an idyllic meadow among the sheep and herders of Arkadia. It says in translation, ‘here also am I’, and the “I”, of course, refers to death. This same phrase appears in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire --only there it may refer rather more pointedly to madness.
   Pale Fire is a thrillingly suspenseful book, beautifully written, and obviously loaded with the subtle allusions, more obvious references and literary devices cherished by academic readers. It is often cited as Nabokov’s greatest achievement, his modern masterpiece, an American “Prelude” – as in Wordsworth! - and even the proof positive that the novel, as an Art form, is not dead (see Mary McCarthy’s review here.). It is also called the first (and by some the supreme example of) modern American meta-fiction.* Mostly, though, it is an extraordinary example of aesthetic structural design. The way all of its narrative and thematic elements come together is truly amazing, and if nothing else works for you, this aspect alone surely should.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Death of Virgil (1945), by Hermann Broch

A Philosophical Novel Of  First Principles 

             “ . . .yet the seconds following hard upon each other enriched
             in flashes the empty space between them with that inconceivable
             thing called life, and it almost seemed to him as if hope blinked up
             again in those flashes . . . if only in this instant . . .”
       (from Book II: Fire - The Descent, Pg. 96)

   Today (November 1st) is Hermann Broch’s birthday; born this day in 1886 (d. 1951), Broch is best remembered now as a contemporary of Joyce, Mann, Musil, and Freud, and perhaps less well known as the Austrian innovator of the stream-of-consciousness technique in fiction. The son of a prominent Jewish family of fin de siecle Vienna, Broch ran (for ten years) and then sold the family’s textile business, in 1928, to pursue studies in Mathematics and Philosophy (much like Musil), before turning away from Logical Positivism in dismay to seek a unifying “totality” of perception in literature.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Rules of Chaos (1969), by Stephen Vizinczey

   Stephen Vizinczey is a writer and novelist, Hungarian by birth, Canadian by nationality, who now lives and writes in England. His self-published, so-called “erotic” novel, In Praise of Older Women, which was written in the early 1960’s, has just last year been re-released by Penguin as a Modern Classic. But my focus here is his 1969 non-fiction thriller, The Rules of Chaos: Why Tomorrow Doesn’t Work.  This latter is a spellbinding examination of, and confrontation with, some of our most cherished and - according to Vizinczey - presumptuous existential beliefs.
   Vizinczey propounds a thesis, in direct opposition to the received wisdom of our overly ambitious and over-confident culture, which is bound to shock some. (Indeed, in keeping with the radical spirit of the day, that was likely a priority.) Even after the intervening years, or, perhaps especially because of the last ten, it still challenges a now less comfortable equanimity.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

In Honor of Britain's National Poetry Day

    A Modest Proposal of Feline Taxonomy
       by Dr. Prof. Erwin Fuzzwinkle, Ph. D. of the Humane Society

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My Ántonia (1918), by Willa Cather

Primus ego in patriam mecum . . . deducam Musas
                          --Virgil, Georgics

    Willa Cather (1873-1947) was an American writer of extraordinary emotional intelligence and unsurpassed literary excellence. Her writing is as crisp and clean as river ice, as luxurious as new-spun wool and as richly textured as farmland topsoil. She was an artist of incredible depth of feeling, for her characters, as well as for the land and the past that they grew out of. She was also the greatest admirer and chronicler of the kind of love, luck and endurance of hardship that it takes to be a pioneer. She brought all of these qualities and abilities to bear in My Ántonia.
    It is the story of a love and a life-long reverence held by a man for a woman who was his childhood friend and companion, since the time they both were transplanted - he, an orphan at 10, from Virginia and she an immigrant child of 14, from Bohemia (the modern day Czech Republic) - to the unbroken, unploughed plains of Nebraska in the 1890’s.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Review of The Assault, by Harry Mulisch

   Harry Mulisch, who died only last year at about this time, was one of the most revered and beloved authors of fiction in post-war Holland. Among many critics (in Holland and abroad) he was considered, even by himself, to be a front-runner for a future Nobel Prize. It was said, he was one of
                               . . . a generation of writers who explored the complex
                               aftermath of a war in which good and evil were not as
                               simple as black and white.
              ---from NYT obituary, October, 2010
His 1982 novel, The Assault, was made into an academy award-winning movie (of the same name) in 1986, which doubtlessly advanced in the States an already burgeoning European reputation.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Atonement Revisited

Some books justify themselves and even their flaws in every line. Some books only justify themselves in the end. Ian McEwan gambles that a story which cannot be justified, even in the end, can still make a great novel. I think he may be right! While I have some reservations about the new aesthetic, in general, I think McEwan’s Atonement (2001) is a truly remarkable book. Even if you know the basic - simple - plot, it is a book you will have to read to the end to fathom. The quality of the prose, generally, makes this easy enough. But the quality and cleverness of its design makes this a surprising, even an amazing, book. It is also a book very difficult to describe or say much about without spoiling the experience for new readers, but (confining myself to its deserving matters of style) I will try. Unfortunately, for me, mentioning some of the most impressive aspects of the book would ruin it for others; so this review is necessarily incomplete.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Review: Pfitz (1995), by Andrew Crumey

   Andrew Crumey’s second novel, Pfitz, was a summertime diversion that paid off in spades. Not only did I snag this little 164-page gem for just a buck at my favorite local second-hand shop (Myopic Books); I also found my self thoroughly entertained throughout and wishing at the end that there were more of the same to be had. Having never heard of Crumey before this extravagant and purely speculative financial adventure – yes, I guess that makes me a risk taker – I was not aware of his other works, e.g. Music, in a Foreign Language and the later D’Alambert’s Principle, which comprise with Mr. Mee a now completed trilogy. And there are others.* This is a treat I will probably avail myself of next summer, if not before.
    Crumey has a PhD. in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics from Cambridge. After a post-doctoral stint at Imperial College and Leeds University, and four years as a schoolteacher he became a book reviewer and literary editor for Scotland on Sunday, until an award for his first novel, Music, in a Foreign Language, freed him to write full time. Then came Pfitz (1995) – a NYT Notable book of the year.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Atonement (2001), by Ian McEwan: A Consideration of Narrative Integrity

   Ian McEwan has become a great literary icon in Great Britain; somewhat less so, but still widely respected, here in the States. There is some disagreement about his overall merit, but most agree, more and less, that his works are not all of equal greatness—some perhaps failing greatness altogether. As I am new to his writings I won’t be taking a stand on the general view, but will content myself with some very tentative first  impressions.
    The opening chapters of McEwan’s Atonement present me with a bewildering perplexity: I had to ask myself, repeatedly, Just who is telling this story, and at what remove? The perplexity concerns the narrative voice. The narration of the novel seems to start out as a straightforward omniscient viewpoint, telling the tale of a 13 year old literary ingénue named Briony, who is eager – frantic really – to stage a play she wrote herself in celebration of her older brother’s return to the family estate from Cambridge for summer holidays. She is determined to enlist the aid, as cast members, of her three cousins (two younger, one older) who have also just arrived to spend time with her family and to escape the domestic squabbles of their parent’s divorce. So far, so good --one would think.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Yates’s The Easter Parade and the Vision of the Artist

    In this, Part II of my essay in aesthetics, I am going to try to apply the principles I espoused in Part I to an analysis of Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade in an attempt to more fully articulate the approach I favor in the appreciation of literary artworks. It will involve some sniping at various other approaches, which I take to be current – even pervasive – in the field of modern literary criticism. This is a habit I will not indulge in normally – unless provoked – but one which, I hope, will make clear to myself and to my readers, just where I stand in these debates. More importantly, I hope my position will clear a theoretical space in which writers like Richard Yates, and their efforts, might be taken more fully at face value, i.e. as they actually intend their works to be taken, as Art, and less as examples of the way we “consumers” can amuse ourselves.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Brief Foray into the Minefield of Modern Aesthetics

    This essay - in which I make no claims to any  profound originality, but only to the more or less orderly collation of various active ideas which guide my thinking about Literature and Art, and which I whole heartedly hold to be correct -  is intended as both a general statement of aesthetic principles, and as a prelude to the immediately following discussion of Richard Yates's The Easter Parade.
   It will be seen that I am still 'solid' with the New Criticism' school of thought, generally, and for that reason have made no great effort to reference the obvious sources. (I will be more intent on reference and rebuttal when it comes time to refute the foolishness of the newer schools of thought, such as 'de-constuctionism', and 'reception theory'--all Post-Modernist philosophies which I abhor.)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Review: A Fearful Joy, by Joyce Cary

   Maybe it is time for a Joyce Cary revue. From the look of things, such as the surprising current lack of critical praise or, seemingly, even an awareness of his work, it seems such hullabaloo may be necessary, replete with songs and scores and pantomimes, just to stir some interest – an approach I think the author himself would approve. For the moment, however, an introduction, at least, must be in order.
   Joyce Cary (born Arthur Joyce Lunel Cary, December 7, 1888 – March 29, 1957) was an Anglo-Irish novelist. Though he was never as well known or widely read as William Golding, or Graham Greene, he was a respected modernist writer of mid century, whose early short works were finally deemed too “literary”, by the Saturday Evening Post in America. Thereafter, he turned to novels, of which he wrote and published 17.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Art on a Stick: A Critique of The Bird Artist (1994), by Howard Norman

  Howard Norman’s second novel, The Bird Artist, was a National Book Award finalist in 1994. I will be much obliged – and probably shocked – if anyone can tell me why.
   Granted, it has the guts to be an intriguing story, full of fabulously eccentric characters who behave in ways that are shocking and gripping and human in all the best senses of that word. And it even has an ambiguously ‘happy ending.’ So, what’s not to like, you ask? I answer: The book. It just sucks --the way pointless stories do.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Archivist, by Martha Cooley: A Review

   Martha Cooley is a native New Yorker (Brooklyn) whose first novel, The Archivist, was published by Little, Brown and Company in 1998. Good for them, for her, and for us! This is a fine novel, and a treat for those book lovers who like books about ideas and authors -- poets, especially. This one concerns a trove of letters putatively written by T. S. Eliot to a confidant and friend (and possible lover?) Emily Hale, over a twenty-year period, which covered the years of his marital disaster and his wife’s commitment (and eventual death in an asylum) and his conversion to Anglicanism. These letters have been donated to the library of a New York university at which Matthias Lane is ‘the Archivist.’ In the tradition of such novels of vocation, everyone, it turns out, is an archivist, in some manner or to some degree. Only the treasures and the secrets they maintain and protect are different. Of his chosen profession Matthias says:
            I saw myself then, and still do, as inheritor of a rich tradition, one that
         straddles the line between mind and spirit. The great librarians have all
         been religious men – monks, priests, rabbis – and the stewardship of
         books is an act of homage and faith. (Pg. 11)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Port Mungo, by Patrick McGrath: An Essay on Morality in Fiction, in Two Parts


      Wow! Patrick McGrath’s Port Mungo (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004) is a deeply disturbing contemporary portrait of narcissism and moral dissolution in the figures of Jack Rathbone, a young, ambitious English painter and Vera Savage, his free-spirited (and older) lover and fellow artist, who flee the dull restrictions of London society for New York, then Havana, and, eventually, Port Mungo, Honduras; presumably, to ‘make art’, to master their craft and to conquer the art world (ala Paul Gauguin) in the generation after world war II. It is an exciting – even riveting – account of the artists’ exotic life and Jack’s development as a man and a father, as told by Jack’s very eccentric and adoring sister, Gin.
   Just as the Honduran setting is exotic and alluring, so also is the narration. The account of Jack Rathbone’s dedicated quest for artistic maturity is charmingly and deceptively naïve. Full of the kinds of lush and tumultuous detail that we expect from the lives and struggles of young artists and lovers, the tale lulls one into a languid acquiescence as to the possibility of romantic adventure as naturally and seductively as a tropical lagoon. But it is also deceptive. It lulls us; it lures us. Why? Is it because the author is also enchanted?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Embers, by Sandor Marai: A Review

    Sandor Marai’s novel, Embers, written and published in Hungary in 1942 (as A gyertyek csonkig egnek: literally, “The Candles Burn Down to the Stump”), and translated from its German edition (Die Glut) by Carol Brown Janeway in 2001, is a recent re-discovery of an Hungarian masterpiece which languished in obscurity during the Soviet era. Its resurrection is due largely to efforts by Roberto Callasso, an Italian writer and publisher whose dedication to Europe’s cultural legacy is now even more than admirable. (Alfred A Knopf, Publishers, of New York, is working hard to have all 46 novels by Sandor published in English—such is the output of this Hungarian master!)
    This novel of friendship, betrayal and revenge,

Death in Summer, by William Trevor: A Review

    William Trevor is a man after my own heart. He seems to proceed on the uncommon assumption that there really is a middle path; that the whole story is never only ‘so much of one and none of the other,’ but must at least acknowledge some balance. This quality marks him as a writer of a certain type: I would call him mature. Beyond all consideration of talent, technique or style, of which much that is good can be said, he is a writer with something important to say. And he says it with such directness and authority, as is both reassuring and heart breaking. One cannot read William Trevor without thinking: poise. Thus, we have his novel, Death in Summer (1998), which is tragic, indeed, but not wholly so; which is brilliantly executed, in the most mundane way; and which actually traffics in stereotypes-- to a certain degree.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ishiguro's Nocturnes: Redux

     A recent on-line discussion of Ishiguro’s Nocturnes caused me to revisit this topic and to develop, from a slightly different angle I think, a fresh approach to presenting my critique. It is different and detailed enough to provide perhaps a clearer statement of my position.
    Oddly, though the work is entirely mine, I almost feel guilty for moving it here from its origin. This is especially odd since this is exactly what I did in a number of early reviews-before I committed to the blog. I think it has to do with the fact that the ideas were worked out in response to two or three particular interlocutors. It presents to me the strange feeling of publishing my own mail. Anyway, I feel more sincere in including the first paragraph here as well. All other comments and opinions being, obviously, for general consumption.

*          *          *

Monday, June 6, 2011

“‘Music and Moonlight’, Blah, Blah, Blah!”

   Recently, I vowed to look into the legacy of William Trevor to find for myself the reason behind his quasi-invisibility in modern anthologies. At the time, I intended to compare him and his work to others, including Kazuo Ishiguro (a winner of the Booker Prize, in 1989, for The Remains of the Day, and various other awards and accolades), with a focus on their short stories—since that is what Trevor is best known for. Well, as promised, I have read Trevor’s stories  (in After Rain) and I have read Ishiguro’s stories (in Nocturnes) and I have this to report: the comparison isn’t even close; indeed, it is not even fair! Ishiguro’s Nocturnes makes such a poor showing as an entry in the Art-of-storytelling category that it can’t be compared, any more than high school football can be compared to an NFL play-offs game. It was an unfortunate choice on my part! For they are playing different games altogether, dictated entirely by their strengths and relative maturity (This is Ishiguro's first volume of short stories!)—to say nothing of the invidious influence of money.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Two Works of Literary Fiction, by John Banville

  After recently reading two novels by the Irish author, John Banville - Mefisto and The Sea –and then engaging in an on-line conversation about the latter, I wrote that some things about Banville’s book were best understood in relation to Samuel Beckett’s works, especially Molloy.  I was asked for my opinion, ‘should one, or need one, know Samuel Beckett’s work to appreciate Banville’s?’ I answered No, but with a proviso. This was the short response and it left me a bit uneasy.  Understanding, like explaining, would require a more precise grasp of the concept and promise of ‘literary fiction’ as a sub-genre of fiction in general. But this concept is fuzzy - at best! - for me and for the publishing world that created it. I found myself confronted by a challenge: viz. to come to terms with this concept or stop using it to describe my blog! So,

Friday, May 20, 2011

Re: William Trevor (Writers and their Seasons)

I read somewhere this quip: 'It's a good thing Trevor is already Trevor, or he wouldn't get an editor to answer an email.' Knowing nothing of William Trevor to this point, I naturally had to find out why.

Trevor is an Irish author, 82 years of age--his birthday is Tuesday may 24th--for over 50 years a resident in England but "Irish in every vein." His collected short stories (1993) comprise a huge volume which is suitable as building material or as a substitute for exercise equipment. Two more volumes were published more recently (2009), and he's not done yet!

I have just begun reading William Trevor's After Rain, a book of short stories from 1996 (I scored a first edition in mint condition for $6USD), and I am loving the stories, their forms and plots and especially his presentation of character, but the language, well, not so much. Do the editors have a point? Is the quip more than a matter of fashion? Most everything a writer can, and should, do is done and done well, but I am still a bit disappointed? Sounds slightly spoiled when I put it that way, no?

It makes me wonder and want to know--very specifically and critically--just what it is I am looking for when I approach an author who is new to me. I went to the Oxford book of shorts, selected and edited by Byatt in 1998, to see where he stood with the times. Imagine, a writer almost universally acclaimed as the master of the short story is not represented there! This makes me think that I am not alone when it comes to approaching writers with an agenda--or just a jaundiced eye.

I'm resolved to do a few things: 1) read all of After Rain (which is just a tiny part of his  oeuvre among short stories, alone) with an eye to my own limitations as a reader; 2) read Death in Summer, his novel from 1998, to be generally more familiar with him as an author, and then, 3) read a bunch of the Byatt selections from the Oxford book, focusing on 'the moderns'. Perhaps some comparison can lead to insight about what can make a writer well respected, but still unpopular. (In this regard, I'm thinking also of comparing it to Ishiguro"s Nocturnes, another 1998 book of shorts, some of which I have already read and enjoyed, but, frankly, this may be making the project a career. We'll see!)

My gut tells me Trevor is both a man of his times and a victim of his times. I hope to be more whole-heartedly on his side before this is over! (Arghh! This could require some reception history research as well.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Underworld, by Don DeLillo: A Review

 Don DeLillo’s 11th novel, Underworld, published in 1997, opens with a 3-page scene so precisely focused and beautifully written that, regardless of the daunting prospect of 800+ pages, I just could not wait to take the plunge, to burrow ever deeper, to plumb the depths –- you get the idea -- to delve into this 'Underworld.' But delving isn’t what DeLillo has in mind, as evidenced by the disappointingly rare occurrence of such close attention in the rest of the tome. Instead, he seems rather to skim over the lives and surface phenomena of a generation like a video camera, pausing only occasionally to expand on the scene; to polish the lens, so to speak, but not to delve. At least, not the kind that I was now hoping for; the kind first suggested by the opening scene. (My own precise!):

Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy: A Review

From Memento More to Momento Male
    What was he thinking?
    This is the question I had to ponder after reading Cormac McCarthy’s so-called masterpiece, Blood Meridian, (also known by its alternative title, The Evening Redness in the West.) For me, this question represents a desire to understand an author’s intentions: not to inquire into his psychology, but into the logic behind the choices. Like, ‘why did McCarthy write a book like BM?’ and, ‘why did he write it the way he did?’ And why did a literary scholar as eminent as Harold Bloom call it “the major esthetic achievement of any living American writer”? Having duly pondered these questions for weeks, I finally have some satisfaction regarding McCarthy’s book, but I am in the same state of near befuddlement as before regarding Bloom. But I do have a theory . . .

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Waterland, by Graham Swift: A Review

    Suppose I started this review in the guise of a teacher rehearsing his role by saying,
    'Children, I want you to know of a wonderful book I’ve just read by Graham Swift; it’s called Waterland, and it’s a story of historical decline and collapse as told by a teacher like me.' Now, how would that go over—like a lead balloon, or a rubber crutch? Or could you take it all in stride, without the careless and impatient rebellion so often associated with the young? If the latter, you will learn, that