Politics and Society

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