Like a fiend in a cloud,
With howling woe,
After night I do crowd,
And with night will go;
I turn my back to the east,
From whence comforts have increas’d;
For light doth seize my brain
With frantic pain.
Archive for January, 2009
A progression of commentators on both Metafilter and Dan Savage’s blog mention the discovery of a reference to a Mark Doty poem in the most unlikely of places—a letter sent to eleven bars with a predominantly gay clientele in the Seattle area, threatening to poison “at least five” patrons with Ricin. The anonymous writer states, “All I can say is the targets won’t care much that they’ll be dead and nearly frozen, just as, presumably, they didn’t care that they were living,” repeating nearly verbatim lines from Doty’s poem “A Display of Mackerel”:
They don’t care they’re dead
and nearly frozen,
just as, presumably,
they didn’t care that they were living
Adding to the horrific resonance of the letter is the circumstance in which Doty wrote the poem—six months after the death of his partner, from AIDS. Doty later wrote, “Epidemic was the central fact of the community in which I lived.” (The letter’s implied parallel between a poison which has no antidote and AIDS makes the threat particularly sinister.)
Despite initial “hopes for co-operation” the Vatican has fallen out with President Obama just days after his inauguration, accusing him of “arrogance” for overturning the “global gag rule” or ban on state funding for family-planning groups which facilitate abortions overseas.
Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said that with “the arrogance of someone who believes they are right”, Mr Obama had signed a decree which would “open the door to abortion and thus to the destruction of human life”.
He added: “What is important is to know how to listen, without locking oneself into ideological visions with the arrogance of a person who, having the power, thinks they can decide on life and death. If this is one of the first acts of President Obama, then with all due respect it seems to me that we are heading toward disappointment even more quickly than we thought”.
(from the Times) Note that this statement comes from the Catholic Church. methinks someone would do well with a tad self-awareness.
Ros was famous for her breasts
When Robert Coover published his great and grandiloquent novel Gerald’s Party in 1985, he was a well-established voice in experimental American prose fiction. The two books he is still best known for, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, had already been published and praised. In a way, this explains the boldness with which “Gerald’s Party” strides onto the literary stage. It wears its theoretical commitments on its sleeve. The narrator and various characters frequently give voice to various theoretical concerns that shape and inform this novel. And, in contrast to novels like Ana Historic, it is a resounding success. We walk away from this novel with the feeling that we cannot say anything about it that the novel does not say better, in a more subtle or brilliant way. The novel dissects theatricality, performativity, sexuality, fairy tales, gender roles, genres and other things, and by making its points in a very obvious manner, it dissects the very act of dissection as well. A cerebral novel like this can be a rather joyless affair, a trudge, a mind-numbing effort. Gerald’s Party isn’t. The reason for this is the writing. There are few writers like Coover: every word in Gerald’s Party feels necessary, no word appears to be substitutable with another.
Saying that the book is excellently written is not saying that the novel is written consistently, it slips –or rather: hops- from register to register. Also, despite the appearance of dozens of characters and the prominence of dialogue, there’s no real trace of what is often referred to as ventriloquism. The characters’ voices in the novel, as they start to crowd the narrow confines of 313 pages, become more and more interchangeable. The author’s nimble fingers are always present, most obviously in the many poetological passages commenting upon the structure of the novel. There is for instance, the following, from a monologue by a painter who tells us why her project has failed (“Gerald’s Party” can well be regarded as a successful attempt to scale the artistic heights the painter abandoned):
“I meant to have a lot of doors in my painting, doors of all sizes, some closed, some partly open, some just empty doorframes, no walls, but the various angles of the doors implying a complicated cross-hatching of different planes, and opening onto a great profusion of inconsistent scenes, inconsistent not only in content but also in perspective, dimension, style- in some cases even opening into other doors, mazes of doors like funhouse mirrors – and the one consistent image was to be Ros. […] But I could not handle it. Too many doors at once, you might say.”
This passage could have been voiced by most characters (except the drunk ones whose speech is slurred. Interestingly, the level of intoxication is the only possibility to tell people apart until this, too, near the end of the novel becomes less of a helpful, too). Apart from the basic artistic principle, there are a few details from this monologue that also fit a poetological reading, most notably: “the one consistent image was … Ros.”
Ros, you see, is the victim of a murder that sets this novel’s cogs in motion: “None of us noticed the body at first” is the first sentence of a novel that, partly, follows – or rather imitates – the conventions of a genre that can be called the “salon mystery”. It involves a party with several characters, a murder and the appearance of an inspector, who solves the mystery by listening to all party guests still alive and finding out ‘whodunit’ (it wasn’t the butler). The inspector is mostly fiendishly smart, like Christie’s elegantly mustached Belgian Hercule Poirot. This genre is so well known that it has been made fun of several times, two of the most hilarious film versions surely being Neil Simon’s “Murder by Death” (1976) and Blake Edwards’ “Pink Panther” (1963). One is, indeed, wondering, what drove Robert Coover, a writer clearly well acquainted with pop culture, to do another send-off in 1985. The answer’s easy: Coover is not actually writing a parody.
Coover is using the form of the salon mystery to comment upon issues that, incidentally, can form a part of genre specimen, and this includes parodies (most parodies, you’ll find, adhere quite strictly to the conventional rules of a genre, since they derive much of their humor from these rules), he is not commenting upon the form. “Gerald’s Party” is a multi-faceted wonder of a book. For one thing, it is a novel concerned with decadence and depravation. We find that numerous people engage in sexual acts, some of them aborted, some not, some of them consensual, some not. This is a veritable moral pigsty, which, at times, may leave a distinct smell of Rome, burning, in some readers’ nostrils. After the first murder, several other people die, yet in this cesspool of a cocktail party, few people care about dead friends or lovers, unless the act of killing provides a spectacle that rivals sex. In contrast to that, we have a few scarce traces of honest, vulnerable love. There are, for example, two people trying to gauge the love they have for each other. This strain of true feeling is clearly at odds with the party at large.
As is rationality, the backbone of the mystery genre. This genre which is concerned with finding the correct (read: one) way of reading the world is subverted here by introducing a multiplicity of attempts of reading or making sense of the world. The most basic element of the genre and the one which all parodies I personally know focus on, including the two named, the Inspector, is almost completely isolated. His trajectories hardly intersect with party proceedings, something that becomes apparent early on:
Inspector Pardew, absorbed in his examination, noticed little of it. Under the glass slides as a makeshift magnifying glass, he peered closely at the wound, poking and probing, muttering enigmatically from time to time. He picked Ros’ breast up once by the nipple to peer under and around it, but he seemed disinterested in the breast itself – if anything, it was an obstacle to him.
The detective, Inspector Pardew, does not mingle with the crowd, he slips in and out of the novel and when he, true to genre conventions, steps in at the end, to present us Ros’ murderer, his solution is not tied to any plot strand. I said it subverts the genre and Pardew is the clearest evidence for this. Where mystery novels usually attempt to parse the world and its inhabitants for evidence, gathering knowledge to find out “whodunit”, “Gerald’s Party” is completely disinterested in the “real world” within the book. The events related by the book point outside the book; this book has two layers: something that is supposed to be a ‘real world’, where inspectors, murders and these things occur. This is hidden, however, under a thick carpet of words and intertextuality, the second world within the book.
There is logic within the first of the book’s worlds which is buried by the party and its events. This is made plain by the fact that Inspector Pardew, who insists upon the interconnectedness of all events, who appears to have no clue as to the actual events at that party, arrives at a successful conclusion at the end, finding out, after all, ‘whodunit’. His conclusion is puzzling to us readers: we have nothing apart from the events related by Coover, the cheeky bastard, to go on, all we have is the carpet. And like a luscious oriental weave, Coover’s book is an artificial construct that hides the world where Pardew’s perspicacity works its magic. This paradox of, to borrow that famous phrase, blindness and insight, i.e. the impossibility of reading the world from any one point of view with any degree of objectivity, is woven through the whole book. Since Pardew is the only one who is honestly attempting to understand the world, at least the one he has access to, the other instances of that paradox resemble tropes more than earnest attempts.
The first trope is introduced through a cameraman, who appears on the scene early on, and whose readings of the party are scrutinized by partygoers at the very same party on a small TV. We learn that the moving pictures he produces, and, by extension, moving pictures in general are unreliable; they are, indeed, readings and not objective depictions. The pictures are affected by the interest of the camera man, by the interaction with the observed and by the way the image arrives at the viewer. An image can be recorded, looped, repeated, stored and manipulated and the viewer is none the wiser for it. The trope of the camera is a representative of the reader, it is Coover’s tool to show up the reader’s arrogance who scans the page thinking he/she understands what’s written on it in a thoroughly objective way, when all he/she does is create an image of the text his mind the exact form of which is dependent on much more than mere sight.
Coover, however, offers other tropes as well. The strongest of these is theatre: the party guests are all part of an art crowd, who converse about the plays and movies they have acted in or directed. Ros has starred in pornographic art, she is the one who connects everything within the book. Lovers and fellow actors occupy the same slot in the memory of things past, and the more the novel progresses, the more art and life merge, to the point where the living room is transformed into an impromptu stage. Although the stage is volatile and vulnerable to intrusions from real life, the lack of an audience transforms all of the party guests into spectators and points to the roles all of the characters are acting out, that we all, in effect, are performing. These roles, Coover suggests, can take different shapes and draw from different sources. There are the obvious things, such as the fact that Gerald’s wife or Alison’s husband are never named, they –and others- are only referred to by the roles they are allotted in society.
The real fun, however, is to be had once we find that texts can be structuring principles as well, fairy tales, for example. The novel plays an elaborate game of hide-and-seek with fairy tales such as Snow White, drawing you deeply into the novel, as you play along. And yes, we are playing along. This is a novel that constantly reflects upon the way it is made, about the effect it has on readers and about the situatedness of its readers. This means that it is highly dependent upon its readers coming from the same cultural context as the author. For all the explaining it does, a surprisingly large part of it is subtext that is understood intuitively. Beni, one of the actors at the party, exclaims: “But she’s not one of us […] she wouldn’t understand”.
This is true for most of this novel as well. If it does not fit your sensibility, you will not like it. The prose is great, no matter what your aesthetic allegiance, but this is a novel of ideas and they need to work for you. This is a warning: this novel is not for everybody. That said: I think this book is stunning, a full success, and the writer clearly among the best writers currently at work. The way he controls tiny nuances and wields the heavy hammer of theory at the same time is inimitable. Books like Marlatt’s disaster of a novel show how hard it is to make an endeavor like this work. Even for Coover: although my read started off with enthusiasm, delight and sheer pleasure in Coover’s craft, after closing the book the prevailing feeling was of exhaustion. A good exhaustion, but tiring nonetheless. It’s tiring, as well, to the novels characters. Those who aren’t killed, leave the party by and by, returning the house to its previous, conventional state. As we turn the final page, however, we are informed of an emptiness at the heart of that structure. All the party guests, all these voices that sound so alike, disappear and we find that what is left is less than we expected. Isn’t it always? When the lights go out and the guests leave, who is left?
“Was da wieder gelaufen ist, ist unsagbar pietätlos und ehrabschneidend”, sagte SWR-Rundfunkratsmitglied Theresia Wieland unserer Zeitung. Selbst wenn Pocher womöglich das Ziel gehabt habe, mit seinem Auftritt die Rolle von Schauspieler Tom Cruise in dem Stauffenberg-Film “Operation Wallküre” zu parodieren, sei dies letztendlich gründlich misslungen. “In diesem Moment identifiziert man das doch nicht mit dem Schauspieler, sondern mit der historischen Figur. Und es ist nicht hinnehmbar, dass man den Helden des deutschen Widerstandes so ins Lächerliche zieht”, übte Wieland scharfe Kritik an Pochers Auftritt.
aus den Stuttgarter Nachrichten. Das muß man nicht mehr kommentieren, oder?
She showed me a photograph: it was Ros on her hands and knees, looking over her shoulder at her raised bum – or rather, not a bum at all, but a rich banker, a snowman capitalist with greedy black-button eyes on each pale cheek, a carrot-nose stuck in her anus, top hat perched on top, and a wet bearded mouth about to ingest a shining gold rod.
from Robert Coover’s novel Gerald’s Party
She struggled with the bedcover, as she tried to reach for the alarm clock. His semen trickled out of her, and was starting to cool on the bed beneath her. Irritated she stood up and kicked the nightstand, which did not appear to contain her alarm clock. He was propped up on an elbow and read a magazine. He always brought them and then he left them at her apartment, leaving it to her to discard them. At first she kept them, neatly stacked in an empty corner, but he never asked for them so she started to dispose of them, so as not to clutter her apartment needlessly. It was bad enough as it was, books strewn all over the floor where she had last opened them, cups and dishes, too. Once a month he swept all of them up and he washed and dried them and put them in her cupboard. He was good that way. Impossible to talk to, however. Not that he wasn’t a good listener, he was, he was like a dog, lying by her side as she mumbled about a story she was writing or a poem she considered reworking into a sonnet, nodding and making friendly noises but he couldn’t contribute anything, of course. He was such a nice boy, if it wasn’t for him no one would cook around here and she would be even thinner than she was already. Her mother stopped nagging about her weight half a year ago, thanks to his efforts. That’s something, isn’t it? When he wasn’t there, he called about five times a day and every other time she took his call. She wasn’t sure whether he would come if she took every call and was nicer to him, he might feel smothered, she’d read something in one of his magazines. As it was it was fine. It worked. The sex was ok, she guessed, they’d tried role-playing, but he was too much of an idiot for that, so now they did just the usual. He started to rub against her, in what he probably considered a seductive way, letting her know of his erection and with a sigh she let him do his routine. Come to think of it, she was surprised that that sigh had never turned him off. Maybe he was used to women sighing. The alarm clock was still gone and the idiot was still reading. Supportive as he was, he never helped her when she needed his assistance badly, he’d merely establish a help routine of sorts, cooking and cleaning at regular intervals. Why wasn’t he using condoms? That sticky fluid on the bed was annoying. A few months ago she’d tried to get him to have sex only on the floor where she could wipe it away easily, or rather he could, and it did not bother her. This, however, interfered with his rubbing come-ons, so they had a week or two of infrequent, awkward sex, which was made worse by the fact that doing it on the floor hurt her knees, which was too much, really. She looked at him, raising an eyebrow. He was good looking, that much was true, but she sure was glad he did not live in her town. He lived in Münster, and she lived in Wuppertal, and it was a one hour’s drive from here to there, the perfect distance. Wuppertal was an old working-class city, with a long tradition of art, industrialism and Nazis. No, really, as she used to explain to her friends, it was always worthwhile to parse German history for those who quickly embraced National Socialism before the majority jumped on the bandwagon. Wuppertal was especially eager to become a Nazi center, with a short-lived concentration camp soon established, one of the first in the Reich. Before it was destroyed, one of the most famous regional Jewish temples was located in Elberfeld, the distict she was currently living in. Quite a rocky history, but try telling that to him. When she moved here and found out about all this, she’d tried to get him to visit the memorials but he didn’t want to. He started to talk about the Holocaust Industry and at that point she’d left the room. She gave up looking for the alarm clock now and went out of the bedroom and walked to a window in the living room. She sat down on the bare floor and picked up a book, absentmindedly. Some German writer, she started to read it until her eyes glazed over. The floor wasn’t cold at all, for a brief moment she wondered about this before she falling asleep right there. As she woke in the morning, he lay next to her, cuddled against her back, with a blanket draped over both of them, but largely over her. He shivered a bit, it was always cold in her apartment in the morning, she didn’t know why. She extricated herself from his embrace, brought the second blanket from the bedroom, covered him with it, wrapped herself in the other blanket and lay down again beside him, not sleeping. She wondered whether this might make a poem.
[honkaku bō ibun, translated by Ursula Gräfe, not yet translated into English]
Inoue, Yasushi (2006), Das Jagdgewehr, Suhrkamp
[ryōjū, translated by Oskar Benl, translated into English as The Hunting Rifle]
Tanizaki, Jun’ichiro (1977), In Praise of Shadows, Leete’s Island Books
[Translated by T.J. Harper and E.G. Seidensticker]
These are two novellas by one of the most highly regarded Japanese prose writers in the second half of the 20th century. I am completely unread as far as critical writings on Japanese prose are concerned, which is not an understatement, so excuse all and any foolish comments that may be obvious and/or superfluous. The Hunting Rifle is Inoue’s first publication, published in 1949, the Death of a Tea Master’s one of his last publications, published in 1981.
Reading the first one puzzled me inordinately. The Hunting Rifle is a strangely seductive work of art. It is reduced to a few significant pieces of dialogue, a few episodes. I started to read it as a love story, but my expectations, schooled by reading countless works of genre literature, were soon disappointed by the way it was executed: it is not an actual love story, it’s a retelling of a love story at a distance, or rather: it is a story about love, if that makes any sense. The story which forms the framework is about a writer who turns an observation about a middle-aged man with a hunting rifle into a poem, published into a hunter’s magazine; the poem, which is extraordinarily beautiful, closes by saying that the rifle presses all its weight into the back and soul of the lonely man wearing it, and that it’s radiating a blood-specked beauty that never appears when the rifle’s targeting something living. Clearly, the poem is critical of hunting, and consequently the poet is astonished that a hunter’s magazine would print it. Shortly afterwards, a man writes him, sure of being the middle-aged man described in the poem, and sends him three letters, asking the narrator to read and then burn them.
The three letters, which the narrator then ‘presents’ to the reader, tell of a forbidden affair between Saiko and her cousin Joskuke, both of whom are married, an affair, which, as we learn soon, ends with Saiko’s suicide 13 years later. The letters are from Saiko’s daughter, who was handed a journal by her mother just before the mother kills herself, and writes a long letter to “Uncle Josuke”, which becomes more and more condemning. She condemns the affair as amoral and thus demonstrates the constraints of the society which led to the affair being covert and doomed; additionally, her righteous – and partly justified- indignation creates an atmosphere that helps the reader to better place the events which are more fully related by the two other letters. The second letter is from Josuke’s wife, Midori, who tells him, among other things, that she has long known about the affair and asks for a divorce. The third and final letter is written by Saiko, who thanks him for having loved her so much for 13 years, and expresses, at the same time, a deep and devastating loneliness; it is a passionate letter yet very composed and cold.
Between these three letters we find events described that have led to four people being lonely, cold, even when passionately in love. There is a deep yearning for love, for company, in each of these letters, although Saiko’s daughter’s in a different way. They are hunting, for love, for composure, for dignity. In an episode related in Midori’s letter, Josuke aims at her back while both sit on a porch. She says she noticed even though Josuke put the gun away quickly. The chaos and violence of life does not reach these characters, the things they do follow careful, pre-established lines. And Saiko’s suicide is an old, known way to end such an affair before it is troubled by violence; and yes, suicide is not violence, as in The Death of a Tea Master, suicide is shown to be an adult, well-considered decision to endow one’s life with a shape even to the end of it; or rather: especially at the end of it. That illicit affair brought disorder into their lives, even if it was just a little, and Saiko’s final action is shown as an attempt to-re-order it. Inoue finds beauty in the spare and in the darkness in people’s minds.
I was reminded of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s short but breathtakingly beautiful essay “In Praise of Shadows”, which praises traditional Japanese architecture, where simplicity rules. As he makes abundantly clear early on, this simplicity is a superficial one, it may and often does hide complexities, but the surface, inside and outside the houses, is clean and spare. It is not the cleanliness of modern glass-and-steel architecture, it’s an aesthetic that involves changing surfaces like wood, which glitter with age the older a house is. The shadows, which are praised, are those left in a room by the angle of the light falling in. Shadow and darkness are not the absence of light for Tanizaki, they are the most important element. It is in shadows that we can contemplate ourselves best, it is light that disturbs our inner order. Thinking and aesthetic meditation are described as almost incompatible with modern fixtures. This passage may illustrate what I mean:
On the far side of the screen, at the edge of the little circle of light, the darkness seemed to fall from the ceiling, lofty, intense, monolithic, the fragile light of the candle unable to pierce its thickness, turned back as from a black wall. I wonder if my readers know the color of that “darkness seen by candlelight.” It was different in quality from darkness on the road at night. It was a repletion, a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow. I blinked in spite of myself, as though to keep it out of my eyes.
Tanizaki mourns a style long gone, a style that cannot compete with the comfort central heating, electric lights and enamel toilets can provide. He feels an alienation of sorts towards that new world, he considers it a part of Western culture. If we Japanese, he says at one point, had invented these things, they would not be as corrosive to our culture as these Western objects are.
Maybe having read both of these books prepared me well for my second Inoue novella, “Death of a Tea Master”, maybe that’s why it did not irritate nor puzzle me at all. It is a beguiling, melancholy historical story retracing the mystery behind the self-inflicted death of a famous tea master, Sen no Rikyū, which soon turns out to be a meditation on the tea ceremony and those who take part in it. Maybe, however, it was different in the latter novella, since it wears its aesthetic heart on its sleeve, by following up both on the story as well as on the aesthetic background. When I closed its covers I found myself moved, entranced, and saddened. I felt the impulse to prepare a careful cup of tea, which is the strangest effect a book has ever had on me.
The Tea Master is a book that extends over a period of 32 years, from 1590 to 1622. It is a period of turmoil that sees the death of a generation of tea masters who appear to be the guardians of a certain culture, and their passing clearly signifies a change within that culture. The span of time encompasses the last throes of the Sengoku period, a time of upheavals and violent conflicts, which was ended by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a powerful daimyo, as regional warlords were then called. Hideyoshi unified Japan by subjugating the other major clans or by entering into alliances with them. It was Hideyoshi who asked for Rikyū’s suicide by seppuku, the ritual suicide mostly undertaken by the retainers of defeated warlords, either voluntarily or not. This novel, which is supposed to be a modern edition of old, unedited journals of a 17th century monk by the name of Honkakubo, charts this monk’s attempts to find out why Rikyū killed himself. And surprisingly, ‘because Hideyoshi told him to’ is not the answer.
As the Hunting Rifle seemed to be a love story, the Death of the Tea Master appears to be a mystery yet applying our genre expectation to this novel would make for as disappointing a reading experience as did reading the Hunting Rifle as a love story for me. As the plot, which covers 32 years, extends over as little as 167 pages in my edition, there are huge gaps and jumps. Honkakubo does not search for the answer to the mystery, at least not in the world around him. His search does not necessarily involve an interrogation of people and evidence, what McHale, if I remember correctly, refers to as the epistemological quest, which distinguishes the modern from the postmodern. Honkakubo makes use of information if and when it comes and the use he makes of it is singular: as he is handed a document that belonged to the late tea master, asked for his expertise, he finds that the document contains thoughts on the tea ceremony and spends weeks, carefully copying it down, meditating. During the 32 years he is invited by a few other monks and tea masters because he used to be a student of the late Rikyū, and has a few elliptical talks with them about Rikyū and the tea ceremony in general. They are elliptical because Honkakubo is reticent, quiet, polite. Even when among people who may cast light upon the mystery, he does not pursue a line of questioning that may enlight him. These people he meets are far more inquisitive yet they must consider him a dissatisfying conversationalist, because he is reluctant to share his interpretations of events during the last years and months of Rikyū’s life.
Even as more and more facets of the great tea master’s life enter the picture, his death remains a mystery, because outside events cannot shed light on it. Only as Honkakubo immerses himself in meditation, praying at Rikyū’s shrine and contemplating the tea ceremony, he gains an idea of what happened. Generally, asking for someone’s suicide meant killing them as surely as would thrusting the tanto into their bowls with their own bare hands. There is, however, a major difference. It is, after all, a self-inflicted death; in this case, Honkakubo and others are additionally wondering why Rikyū did nothing to alter Hideyoshi’s opinion. As our rulers today, the daimyos of Rikyū’s time were prone to bouts of anger now and then. Asking for a retainer’s suicide apparently was often a rash act, and the retainer was expected to ask for forgiveness and mercy afterwards. Rikyū would, it transpires, almost certainly have been granted mercy. Instead, he went to his death without complaint.
The tea ceremony is offered as a possibility for understanding the reasons for this. Rikyū was one of the first important tea masters to practice the art of wabi-sabi, a philosophy of simplicity, intimacy and modesty. I briefly discussed Tanizaki’s essay on architectural aesthetics earlier and the culture the loss of which he laments, is basically one dominated by wabi-sabi. In one of the most intense scenes in the novella, the tea ceremony is described as an encounter with death, with the tea drinker submitting to the tea master’s power. Although the tea master, who grinds the tea leaves, boils the water, cooks and serves the tea, may seem like a servant, he is actually the one person who is in charge of a ceremony which is apparently of high spiritual importance, because drinking the tea is not important; one has to drink it in the right way. People bow their heads under the yoke of ceremony, of convention and their tea master’s actions. Seppuku, the ritual suicide, is, in a way, quite a similar procedure, only here the warlord or emperor calls the shots. It may be that by refusing to ask for mercy, Rykiyu is refusing his lord the power which seppuku usually grants him.
This, however is but a personal interpretation. The novella itself does not decide upon any single reading. Instead it tries to make the cultural and personal context, in which the novella’s characters move, as clear as possible. It is not asking the reader to follow up on its clues to find out who did it; on the contrary, it invites the reader to meditate upon death and power and may, in some perceptive readers, awake a sense of self which we may be alienated from by modern times. This corresponds to the Hunting Rifle in a curious way. Behind the sad and cold story that is offered to us, love, not necessarily reciprocal love, is presented as a way to awaken your self as well. The Death and the Tea Master never allows for us to construct dichotomies, oppositions, it asks for our thoughts on death and autonomy; similarly, The Hunting Rifle asks us to consider our attitude towards love. Saiko relates an episode from school, where girls in class distribute a sheet of paper with two questions on it: “do you want to be loved” and “do you want to love”. In a way, the book is about the characters’ own hypothetical answers to this question and about the effect this has on their lives. Both of the novellas seem very distant from us, culturally, yet that distance beckons us to step closer. Tanizaki writes, near the end of the essay, and he could well have been describing Inoue’s method:
I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration.
This is my first review of a story collection; what’s more Lydia Davis is a certified genius and I am a wooden-brained blatherer and arrogant to boot, so you’ll have to indulge me in this or stop reading. If you expect praise, you’re not going to find a whole lot of that here, I know that much, although I am not particularly sure where I’m headed.
“Varieties of Disturbance” is Davis’ sixth collection of short prose. Davis is one of the most honored and praised writers of her generation. She is also known as an accomplished translator, having translated Michel Leiris, Maurice Blanchot, and Marcel Proust, among others. Praise for her work seems to be ubiquitous, something I’ve only found out, strangely enough, once I started my reading of the “Varieties”. This book is advertised and praised as innovative, “rule-breaking” (back cover), with some, like Charles Baxter, claiming that Davis “is reinventing the short story in our time”. Ahem. Baxter is, I believe, mistaken (but it’s not his fault, we’ll come to that), since this book is nothing of the sort.
I have to admit that I have never before read a book like this. “The Varieties of Disturbance” is a good book, although the qualities of its stories is not consistent. Sometimes Davis heads for short time effect instead of letting her prose work out the ideas she has set them on, for example in the story called “Tropical Storm”:
Like a tropical storm
I, too, may one day become “better organized”
Or in a story called “The Busy Road”
I am so used to it by now
that when the traffic falls silent,
I think a storm is coming.
I will say this: The book is highly enjoyable and I don’t regret having read it. This is one of its two main strengths: the writing. Davis is an assured writer. She changes seamlessly from register to register, is in full control of her phrases’ cadences. This book is mostly extraordinarily well made; what’s more, Lydia Davis is an extraordinarily well read writer. She has dipped her quill deep into the inkwell of literary history, evoking writers and imitating different texts and styles. There are a few explicit references, chief among them a cutup/reworking of Kafka’s letters and a lame but, again, well-executed story that follows a traveler’s reading of Beckett on a road trip, but most of them aren’t. Davis is an ironist, however, and a true ‘postmodernist’, she rarely uses these styles, most of these stories are about the style they are written in. Thus, even when she writes in iambs or adopts the impish yet sharp tone of Lewis Carroll or Dr.Seuss, she never ‘stoops’ to their level of play, she keeps her distance, basically retelling a style as one would a story. A good example for this is the story “Jane and the Cane”.
The aforementioned story involving Beckett is, in part, symptomatic of a certain weakness of that collection: its strength rests on the power of Beckett’s words, not on Davis’ words and the best result of reading it is being sent back to yr own shelves to explore the grand Irishman’s words again . It consists of a complex interweaving of, for example, the trajectory of travel on the one hand and the trajectory of reading on the other. The story tells us how words and events are processed, how reading a text and reading a trip can be similar and what the givens in these two instances are. Contrary to what many critics seem to believe, however, ‘complex’ does not equal ‘good’. Just because a reader may feel he’s in over his head, the book isn’t suddenly a success. This effect is well known from critical reactions to so-called obscure writers. I have read more than one defense of Derrida that showed how little the defender understood of his subject (and I believe Derrida’s actually right); also, there are other writers in the postmodern section that I have not yet read that are praised by people who clearly have trouble understanding basic arguments, among them, most recently Ward Churchill.
Don’t get me wrong, the book is often intellectually tingling, quite like a crossword puzzle or a philosopher’s digest, There are short pieces that sound extremely deep and intellectually charged, I’ll quote two of them to illustrate the point made in the previous paragraph. The first one’s called “Index Entry” and touches upon all sorts of things, among them language in general and naming in special:
Christian, I am not a
The other one’s called “Suddenly Afraid”:
Because she couldn’t write the name of what she was: a wa wam owm owamn womn
Again, it’s almost a waste of breath to sum up its concerns, it’s all so plainly there. On the other hand, the simplicity and clarity is a merit of Davis’ work, I am just not sure how highly I would weigh that merit.
To sum up, Davis achieves sounding complex not by being a good thinker or good reader but by having read a large amount of good thinkers and writers. Her work draws from a huge bulk of sources and never shies away from flaunting this. Critics may erroneously declare her innovative, but the writer in these texts never pretends to make it new. Davis is postmodern in the best sense of the word. A similar effect is aimed at in a consummate story about a walk which a male critic and a female translator of Proust undertake. The critic is, we learn, dismissive of her work, preferring an older, less faithful but more poetic version. An episode on the walk these two take reminds the translator of an episode in Proust. She proceeds to quote the passage in both translations. Again, a similar set of questions and problems is raised as in the Beckett story, again pretty unsubtle, in a way that does not allow the reader to read it in a different manner. That happens because these stories are very spare, Davis unerringly going straight for the philosophical jugular of her pieces. She is rather disinterested in what is usually referred to as plot, if each story is taken on its own. However, over the course of the collection, things happen, people are described, interiors and exteriors are evoked, the works. “The Varieties of Disturbance” covers a large terrain, yet still keeps within the enamel confines of domestic life, roughly speaking. We find epigrams on the small humdrum tragedies of everyday life, as well as longer faux-academic studies of, for example, the letters a class of schoolchildren send a sick, hospitalized classmate. Davis’ writing which, while always competent, sometimes even dazzling, actually works best in sober contexts, like said study, or, in one of my favorite pieces, an account of the procession of maids passing through the household of a writer by the name of “Mrs. D.”. This is one of my favorite pieces because so much that is characteristic about the book is gathered here. Sobriety, pastiche, and subject. What subject? The domestic space. The titular disturbance is the disturbance of the private order, of our daily patterns. The title story dwells a little on the issue, I’ll quote the last third:
When I describe this conversation to my husband, I cause in him feelings of disturbance also, stronger than mine and different in kind from those in my mother, in my father, and respectively claimed and anticipated by them. My husband is disturbed by my mother’s refusing my brother’s help and thus causing disturbance in me greater, he says, than I realize, but also more generally by the disturbance caused more generically not only in my brother by her but also in me by her greater than I realize, and more often than I realize, and when he points this out, it causes in me yet another disturbance, different in kind and in degree from that caused in me by what my mother has told me, for this disturbance is not only for myself and my brother, and not only for my father in his anticipated and his present disturbance, but also and most of all for my mother herself, who has now, and has generally, caused so much disturbance, as my husband rightly says, but is herself disturbed by only a small part of it.
Make of that what you want. I think this part illustrates the merits and demerits of Davis’ work very well, although the writing is not typical, and from your reaction to it you may gauge the possible reaction you may have to the whole book.
I did say earlier that this book does not break new ground yet I also said that I have not read a book quite like this before. Where similar books concentrate on one or two sorts of adaptions, this one crawls with influence, we mentioned this earlier. At every single point the reader hears other writers. The most significant reference are probably works like Lichtenberg’s enormous Sudelbücher, his collection of aphorisms, essays and other texts. I know that the word aphorism is these days connected to all sorts of weak writing. Lichtenberg’s work, on the other hand, contains narrative episodes, thoughts and finished essays on literature and science. Lichtenberg was a true polymath, another word that has been applied to too much less worthy books these days, much as I love David Foster Wallace, he is often like a fish out of water when tackling science in non-fiction. Other writers and texts that come to mind reading Davis include Thomas Bernhard and books of his like “Der Stimmenimitator”, or short prose like Kafka’s, Beckett’s, Barthelme’s or Barth’s, it’s really a long list, and this is off the top of my head. “The Varieties of Disturbance” is unlike any of these books, because it resembles all of them, in part, without the original fire or brilliance. It’s a weaker collage of others’ styles, a weaker collage of others’ ideas, written by a very good writer. So how does the mistaken idea of innovation enter the picture? The publisher or the author printed the word “stories” on the cover of this book of short prose. As short prose, this is nothing new, as stories, this book does indeed break new ground. If I change the title of my inane master’s thesis and add the words “a novel” to it, I promise a novel the kind of which you have never before read. Distinguishing modes of reading from kinds of texts is not the worst idea, sometimes.
“The Varieties of Disturbance” is written in one voice, even when being punny, alliterative, iambic, this is the voice of one person. The book explores what I have called the enamel confines of domestic life. How children, maids and mothers shape our lives’ rhythms. This is the interesting part, the affecting part, the part that sets this book apart from similar texts. This it what makes it re-readable, watching the prose explore the nooks of this voice’s life, watching how babies, dogs, brothers cause little and big disturbances in her life. All the ideas about language and theory, none of them are new, nor particularly riveting. Yes, it’s fun, but that part of the book is like “Kill Bill”. New it ain’t. Read the book if you’re up for a bit of intellectual fun, do not read it if you want something special or new. Although your time is better spent with any writer named in this review, it’s not badly spent with Lydia Davis. Did I make sense?
Als die ersten Demonstranten die Flaggen erkannten, stand P. mit seiner Freundin auf der Straße, in unmittelbarer Nähe. Er hatte den Zug begleitet, weil er eventuelle Hetzparolen dokumentieren wollte. Was sich angesichts der Flaggen entwickelte, nennt P. “eine Lynchstimmung”. “Tod Israel”, sei von einigen Demonstranten geschrien worden, und “Verrecke!”. Die Polizei erschien ihm überfordert.
“Plötzlich”, berichtet der Student weiter, “sah ich einen Polizisten auf dem Balkon im zweiten Stock”, der zur Wohnung unter seiner eignen gehört. Der Beamte riss die eine Israelfahne, die an P.s Balkon befestigt war, ab. Kurze Zeit später sah P., wie in seinem eigenen Wohnzimmerfenster ein Beamter die innen angebrachte Fahne abmachte.
Die Aktion der Polizei löste bei den Demonstranten Jubel aus.
“Sie riefen immer wieder Parolen wie “Vergast die Juden”, “Ermordet die Juden” und “Steckt die Juden in die Gaskammer”. Ich war erschrocken dass die Kirche so etwas auf ihrem Gelände duldet. Das hat doch mit Meinungsfreiheit nichts mehr zu tun. Man darf doch nicht die Ermordung anderer Menschen fordern.” Die Polizei rief B. nicht – denn die war ja schon vor Ort – zog es aber vor nicht einzugreifen: “Die Polizei stand direkt daneben und muss alles mitbekommen haben. Gehandelt hat sie aber nicht.” Die Aufforderung zum Genozid an den Juden war der Polizei später noch nicht einmal eine Erwähnung wert. In der Pressemitteilung zur Demo heißt es lapidar, die Demonstration sei friedlich verlaufen. Nur ein paar Schneebälle seien auf die Polizei geworfen worden: “Dabei rutschte ein Jugendlicher auf dem glatten Untergrund aus und zog sich eine Kopfplatzwunde zu. Ein Rettungswagen brachte ihn zur ambulanten Behandlung in ein Krankenhaus.”
Auch die Ordner, die Demonstration war von deiner “Parteilosen Wählergruppe Gelsenkirchen (PWG)” angemeldet worden, hätten die Hetzparolen gehört ohne einzugreifen, so B.. Wie gut das keine Israelfahne die zünftige Proteststimmung störte.
Skandalös ist auch das Verhalten der Mainzer Polizei. Während er gegen die anti-israelische Demonstration offenbar nichts einzuwenden hat, äußerte Polizeisprecher Kai Süßenbach gegenüber dem SWR die Ansicht, dass die israelsolidarische Aktion – das Zeigen der Fahne des jüdischen Staates! – eine „Provokation“ darstellen würde, da die Beteiligten keine Israelis waren.
William Gaddis was probably one of the most celebrated writers in the English language in the latter half of the twentieth century. At his death in 1998 he was considered a major American writer despite having only four (a fifth, Agape, Agape, was posthumously published in 2002, as well as a collection of essays, The Rush for Second Place) novels to his credit. Two, JR, which is concerned with the world of finance, and A Frolic of his Own, which pokes fun at the law profession, have won the National Book Award. His chef d’oeuvre, the towering, enormous The Recognitions is the only one I have personally read, so far. Difficulty and, as trite an observation though it may seem, length, is one characteristic all three of these novels share. Carpenter’s Gothic, published in 1985, the third of his novels, is not very difficult and slim to boot. Thus, it’s no small wonder it has been given short shrift by many readers and is considered B-grade Gaddis.
For B-grade material, however, this is an amazing prose masterpiece. Even if every other novel by Gaddis were better than Carpenter’s Gothic, that’s no skin off CG’s back. This is a wonderful, extraordinarily written book. The plot is the least of it, yet it’s an grand plot with colorful characters that is generic yet consistently engaging. I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog how hard it is to make good genre books while trying to be ‘literary’. Dozens of boring books attest to that fact, for examples a few of Chabon’s genre forays, such as “The Final Solution”. Gaddis, however, has his generics down pat. The characters alone attest to that: the female protagonist, Liz, is a young beautiful heiress to a huge, evil conglomerate. She and her brother are not paid their full share though, they are paid from a trust fund. The conglomerate’s chief executive is also the one who controls the trust fund. His daughter is Liz’s best friend and richer than her, thanks to her father’s shady dealings.
Liz’s husband Paul, who may or may not have married Liz for her money, is an irascible media consultant for Reverent Ude, an evangelical priest, who is himself engaged in some shady affairs. Paul is a Vietnam veteran, who has come out of the war without decorations but with a lot of psychological damage. He is no Travis Bickle, though, Paul’s a functioning part of society. In fact, I personally thought that his psychological limitations are quite some help in his job. And he is very good in what he does, although he may not be the brightest bulb in the box. With everyone around him engaged in subterfuge and intrigue, Paul appears to grasp only a fraction of what is happening. Speaking of which, we should not forget the third major character, Mr. McCandless, a former teacher, who owns the house Liz and Paul are currently living in. His own background is a mystery. When asked by Billy, Liz’ brother:
“I mean what are you, some kind of geologist?”
He answers vaguely
“Yes. Yes you could put it that way, now…”
He may be involved in shady dealings, secret maps, clandestine knowledge about ore mines in Africa, or he may not. From these three characters a story is spun that gains speed as you turn the pages and comes to a violent and turbulent climax.
There are all sorts of tricks and games Gaddis plays with us. In a novel with an evangelist and his media consultant, the only fundamentalist ravings we get to read are McCandless’, who is a fervent atheist. They are amusing to read, and the only actual monologue we get served. Any bit from these rants is quotable, so I just use an early one:
Think I made it up? Like the name on that book there? You think ignorance isn’t dead serious? Red dirt, rolling hills, a rail line, trickle of a stream and a town grows up there, great trees meeting overhead down the main street and some civilized person names the place Chemin-couvert. A generation or two of ignorance settles in and you’ve got Smackover, a hundred years of it and you’ve got a trial like that one, defending the Bible against the powers of darkness they are doing more to degrade it taking every damned in it literally than any militant atheist could ever hope to. Foolishness bound in the heart of a child but the rod of correction shall drive it out so they whale the daylights out of their kids with sticks.
Another great topic is ownership, how things and people are owned, held and used, Paul, who barely owns anything, makes a point of holding and using as many things as possible, trying to pay/invest as little as possible in/for them so they appear to be his, largely a self-deception which starts with not paying the rent for the house and ends with trying to hold (on to) his wife, as he holds her breasts. Sexuality, per se, is repressed, there’s not much sex or open eroticism in the house, which also extends to the aesthetics. We only learn at the close of the novel that Liz is staggeringly beautiful, only after the events have started into their fateful gallop we even learn she’s a redhead. Once desire is freed, however, it starts to ooze and burn and takes ahold of every major character. As in The Recognition, authenticity and repetition is a major topic again. The very title refers to this. Late in the book, McCandless talks about the house which is built in a style called “Carpenter’s Gothic”:
Oh the house yes, the house. It was built that way yes, it was built to be seen from the outside it was, that was the style, he came on, abruptly rescued from uncertainty, raised to the surface -yes, they had style books, these country architects and the carpenters it was all derivative wasn’t it, those grand Victorian mansions with their rooms and rooms and towering heights and cupolas and the marvelous intricate ironwork. That whole inspiration of medieval Gothic but these poor fellows didn’t have it, the stonework and the wrought iron. All they had were the simple dependable old materials, and the wood and their hammers and saws and their own clumsy ingenuity bringing those grandiose visions the masters had left behind down to a human scale with their own little inventions.
He continues and later refers to the house as a “patchwork of conceits”. This could be said about the novel as well, in two ways. One is the plot. As typical of the genre, the plot is virtually “a patchwork of deceits”, i.e. a plot stitched together by all its characters’ trickery and subterfuge. The way this is realized, however, brings us to the second way. Gaddis isn’t content by merely writing a great Gothic novel, he undercuts expectations time and again, sometimes by playing with themes. Sometimes, though, he uses his most powerful tool: language. The book, to return to metaphor is well referred to as a patchwork of conceits, because sure as hell it is not a melting pot of conceits or something like that. All the intrigue is relayed to us in dialogue that almost never meshes. People talk and talk yet they don’t communicate. Liz is the medium of this sort of antisocial behavior, she endures other people’s plots and talks. Plots intersect yet they don’t meet and even after the explosive finale the major strands appear to be ‘pure’.
This novel continues Gaddis’ work with dialogue that he started in “The Recognitions” and brought, as as I have read it so far, to full bloom in “JR”. The novel is largely dominated by the things people say, the things they do are often relayed to us via dialogue, and this dialogue is so well written that it doesn’t need the tired formula many prose writers rely on, the “he said sadly” structure of introducting/framing speech. Gaddis’ dialogue doesn’t need this, he uses punctuation in order to convey pauses and speed, not in order to adhere to any dull rules of punctuation. His characters’ words double up, speed up, are pitched higher, lower, so we almost hear how they say it. His is an extraordinary control of other people’s voices. Many things have been written, especially in the 1990s, on this or that writer’s ‘ventriloquism’, writers like DFW or David Mitchell. The effortlessness of Gaddis’ casting voices, compared to the heavier-handed works of his younger acolytes, is humbling. The whole book seems to be written effortlessly. It’s a quick, fun read, written with a master’s hand who took on a genre and made it his. The boards and structures of the genre are there, but the fittings are Gaddis’ and the heart of the house, it’s soul, is his as well. And no one could have done a better job on either of them.
I am not sure how to approach this rather short review so excuse me if I digress. It appears that in the last two decades a certain kind of philosophy has turned into “theory”, and many of its adherents seem to believe that within “theory”, philosophy’s rules no longer apply. Mentioning “gender”, “class” or “race” is quite enough, or dropping the name of enough canonized theorists. Thus, essays that do “theory”, often resemble lists of books and writers, containing barely a shred of actual argument. This is not restricted to any kind of theory, it can happen in a deconstructive reading of Dickinson as well as in that unbearable book on Merrill by Gwiazda. When non sequiturs become the main structural principle of an academic work you know you’re in trouble. The only thing that matters in such books or essays is the amount of texts mentioned and the degree to which they fit that book’s idea of “theory”. I have read a review of a biographical study of Elizabeth Bishop where the reviewer’s main complaint is that a passage in the book in question is plausible but “undertheorized”. Huh. I bet it’s also badly argued since the point is tough to argue (the necessity of biographical readings for understanding Bishop’s work) but that’s beside the point.
To return to the novel at hand. It has been praised quite a lot but if you look at the blurbs on the back, you can just imagine the reviews. “Theory” reviews of a “theory” novel. For this is what “Ana Historic” is. The writer is clearly well versed in theory of all stripes. Narrative, gender, power. It never drops the requisite names, but otherwise it’s like a big checklist and most readers will have all the right bells ringing in their heads (Foucault! Butler! Etc.). Often complex novels will make readers think of theory, some writers seem to be eerily conscious of the philosophical implications of what they write. The complexity of Beckett’s or Melville’s prose, Merrill’s poetry etc. will make reader’s minds reach for the thinkstuff. Then there are the less subtle writers, the most brilliant of whom is probably Heiner Müller, who write after or during the advent of theory and whose every scene or line betrays that knowledge. But it’s still exciting, interesting, which is more than I can say about Marlatt. Marlatt will, from time to time, stop and insert blunt pieces of theory, explicitly pointing out some presuppositions in the narrative as the gender roles or power structures. At times this reader had the impression of reading an analysis of a text that never appears on its own. This would have been interesting as well.
However, Marlatt is devoted to be a spoilsport. After doing some analysis she lapses into ‘regular’ writing again, interspersed with some tedious poetry (Marlatt must be an awful poet, if this text is any indication) and, less and less often, “theory”. She is not a good stylist, her prose is flat and uninteresting, sometimes I even had the impression of it’s being intentionally dull. Her being a spoilsport can be demonstrated by opening the book at random but this passage is among the most telling. IT starts out well enough:
not, not…all these elements knotted into the text.
The reader may sigh with slight annoyance, but more often he will chuckle with goodwill. Everybody likes puns. But how does she continue?
not, not…all these elements knotted into the text. silent k. for what? kiss. xoxoxo in code. kisses and hugs. omitted.
See what I mean? Sometimes this book appears to be committed to make this book as straightforward and uninteresting as possible, sussing out every ambiguity or pun and uncurling it. And from beginning to end it’s always the same dull style. And this despite a really good plot.
It’s a book about a woman in our time reimagining the life of a woman in 1873 who is mentioned in brief in some official records. Her notes and imaginings reflect on the way that those who write determine who is remembered and whose story is told and that the circumstances and the society around you determine who writes and who doesn’t. It’s about the power of naming things and people and about the lack of personal choice one has in a society. The book turns out to be a meditation on the limits of writing and thinking as a woman in this culture and language that is still dominated by men and their structures. It is about repression and about discipline, today and then. About questions of power and how they’re interlaced with questions of sexuality. And it does all these things, it bears repeating, in the dullest way imaginable, although, near the end, ten or twenty pages really moved me (the end, again, is awful, awful.).
There is a basic difficulty in judging a book like this. It is based on the difficulty of being a woman in a patriarchal society and a female writer writing in a patriarchal language, and I, a white male, am bound to misread it. The axiomatic canon I use in judging this book may be wrong and not applicable to “Ana Historic”. But then, the question is, what sort of system is it that Marlatt is submitting her book to. If it’s theory/philosophy, it’s not well argued and not original at all, there is not a shred of originality in the whole book, apart from the research plot and the plot is not part of the system. Or is it literature, then the flat writing and the terrible boredom is an important and damaging issue. I have, however, intimated that Marlatt may be an intentional bore. Make people think not like the book, maybe Brecht all over? I get the feeling Marlatt is trying to somehow straddle both systems and is relying on her poetical muscle to make it all work, since she was, when the novel was first published, a noted and acclaimed poet. Also, Marlatt, as many current practitioners of so-called “theory”, seems to believe that you only have to say enough of the ‘right’ things and say them often enough, to make her text work.Sadly, it doesn’t work, none of this. This plot deserves a better writer or a better thinker. It is not well served with Daphne Marlatt.
cavehinds on Jane Eyre:
To call Jane Eyre a feminist text is to insult women. To call it a feminist novel is to insult literature. And to call Charlotte Bronte a writer is to insult civilization. Might as well call Hitler a humanitarian.
This from Holly @ the excellent Pervocracy blog:
I really wish nonsexual nudity was socially acceptable. I wish it was a sociable thing–hey, we’re having a party, bring a six-pack and a towel to sit on!
In my sexual utopia, nudity is like taking off your shoes. It’s unusual to do in public, but no big scandal if you do, and it’s a sign of relaxation to do in private, but no judgement if you don’t. And it’s true that you usually take off your shoes to have sex, but that doesn’t make shoelessness sexually menacing or vulnerable or inviting, it’s little more than a coincidence.
I may add a few thoughts of my own on this as the week progresses. we’ll see. too sick for coherent thinking currently.
Her hair was well brushed that day and sheened darkly in contrast with the lusterless pallor of her neck and arms. She wore the striped tee shirt which in his lone fantasies he especially liked to peel off her twisting torso. The oilcloth was divided into blue and white squares. A smear of honey stained what remained of the butter in its cool crock.
She looked at him. A fiery droplet in the wick of her mouth considered him. A three-colored velvet violet, of which she had done an aquarelle on the eve, considered him from its fluted crystal. She said nothing. She licked her spread fingers, still looking at him.
from Nabokov’s masterful Ada, or Ardor.
Her hair was well brushed that day and sheened darkly in contrast with the lusterless pallor of her neck and arms. She wore the striped tee shirt which in his lone fantasies he especially liked to peel off her twisting torso. The oilcloth was divided into blue and white squares. A smear of honey stained what remained of the butter in its cool crock.
She looked at him. A fiery droplet in the wick of her mouth considered him. A three-colored velvet violet, of which she had done an aquarelle on the eve, considered him from its fluted crystal. She said nothing. She licked her spread fingers, still looking at him.
from Nabokov’s masterful Ada, or Ardor.
This is another one of the ‘lost’, i.e. out-of-print classics which have been republished in the nifty NYRB editions and thus made available to the reading public. “The Slaves of Solitude” was originally published in 1947 and its plot is set in 1940s London. The novel is, at 240 pages, a quick and enjoyable read, a novel as funny as it is moving. The protagonist, “this slave of her task-master, solitude”, a middle-aged former schoolmistress with “a healthy complexion –too healthy for beauty-“, by the name of Enid Roach, who is once, to her chagrin, referred to by her Christian name, but is usually known as “Miss Roach”. As she concedes herself, her former occupation has endowed her with certain character traits and being called “Miss Roach” seems to fit her character best. The novel charts a few weeks of her life in a boarding house by the river Thames, “some miles beyond Maidenhead on the Maidenhead line”, from her point of view (mostly, I’ll return to that) and containing her sarcastic, enraged, bitter and tentatively enthusiastic attitude towards her fellow boarders and her environment as a whole. It is so funny, you’ll laugh out loud often enough not to read this book in public and moving enough that you genuinely care about Miss Roach’s feud with two fellow boarders and quietly cheer her on.
However, despite all the hardships Miss Roach seems to be suffering, she does not appear to be in need of being cheered on. She is a stubborn person, trudging on and on through a blizzard of slights and insults, both real and (possibly) imagined. She reads her environment like a wayward book, looking for battle lines. Who is against her? Her arch enemy at the beginning is Mr. Thwaites (who reminds me of certain characters one meets on chat boards from time to time). He is a Daily Mail reader, which is saying quite enough about him. He adores, in a way, Hitler, nurses a diffuse hatred against communism or Russians; he disparages women unless he wants to get in their pants and he loves to hear himself talk. He considers himself to be supremely witty and at dinner he lets loose a barrage of phrases and words he considers witty and smart. He also considers himself to be quite suave and cosmopolitan (although he is a patriot of the most disgusting stripe) and toys with French phrases (that he barely understands) as well as with dialects, producing nuggets like this “”Yes…I Hay ma Doots, as the Scotchman said – of Yore”.
There are other colorful characters, a historian named Miss. Steele, who sits at a separate table and from time to time throws in some partisan comments which Miss Roach usually takes to be supportive of her. There is also a former actor who sits at another separate table and barely says anything. Some lodgers, among them two American lieutenants, leave the establishment which used to be a tea-house. It is with one of them that Miss Roach tries to lighten her loneliness, but it is an attempt that is doomed from the start. His kisses merely confuse the former schoolmistress, as we the readers are apprised of her changing perception of the city around her which changes from blackness to darkness and back again. Incidentally, the use of colors and the naming of them is a fascinating part of this novel’s complex language. Confusion is Miss Roach’s main trouble, as she is constantly trying to sort other people’s comments into a black-and-white scheme, i.e. trying to find out who is against her and who is supportive of- of what? Of her opinions surely not, since she rarely vents her exuberantly worded rants. Her low mumbles at the dinner table are but the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Her rants and her confusion reach a high when her friend, a German called Vicky Kugelmann, called “Koogel” by Miss Roach’s landlady, whom Miss Roach had always considered to be somewhat ‘under her wing’, turns, so to say, against her by being suddenly, surprisingly, upbeat and popular. With men, mostly, including her lieutenant and the evil Mr. Thwaites. Suddenly, Vicky appears to be less of an Anglophile to Miss Roach and more of a covert Nazi. Her endearing use of outdated 1920’s English starts to be unnerving and almost unbearably obnoxious. There are whole pages of rants about vocabulary in the latter half of the novel which are among the most hysterically funny passages of the book. Although these suspicions and rants are indicative of a not very endearing character trait, a smallness of character, every line of the book proclaims Miss Roach’s generosity. This smallness is a way to defend herself, another way to cope with loneliness. Being a slave of solitude, she does not appear to have a choice. Her choices are made, larger and smaller ones. When a bomb destroyed her home and she left her school she ended up in her present lodgings in as unplanned a manner as her relationship with the lieutenant sours when Vicky intrudes upon it. It is only in the grand, cataclysmic finale that she starts to get ahold of herself and her choices and it makes quite a difference.
Mr. Thwaites’ game is domination, plain and simple. He attacks people by asking loaded questions, such as the very first question he poses our heroine when he inquires about “your friends”, the Russians. Miss Roach never said nor implied anything to justify that but every time that question is asked she is pushed into the defensive. As the novel proceeds he finds more and more ways to play his game. Questions of power are asked a few times in the “Slaves of Solitude”, the very title of which implies, well, servitude. This one may seem to be a servitude to one’s self, one’s loneliness, but the book demonstrates how often lonely people slip on the yokes of other people’s whims and opinions to escape solitude. Letting yourself kiss by some greasy American soldier, who may or may not take you to his home after the war, letting yourself be insulted and attacked by an odious Englishman rather than skipping dinner or tea time or spending it alone. She drinks quite a lot, although she knows when to stop and doesn’t usually enjoy drinking, but she drinks because she sometimes enjoys it. If you have once lifted the veil of solitude or if you have seen a way to go about lifting it, you will try again, and you will endure quite a lot. As London and the world fall apart, so does her former life and she becomes, by and by, conscious of her detrimental bonds with her ‘friends’.
As many other novels over which the dire shadow of alcoholism hangs, it is dominated both by humor and tragedy. Other outstanding novels in this vein are Jean Rhys’ electrifying masterpieces or the books of A.L. Kennedy, most notably Paradise. I wonder about Hamilton’s other novels. This one, enjoyable though it is, feels blunted. It’s rather nice, actually, which, subtly, changes the brand of humor we’re dealing with in this book. It is not the type of gallows humor we would expect with the ingredients we readers are served here and the good thing is, we notice this early on and relax. This novel relaxes its grip around the reader but it doesn’t do this for lack of focus or brawn. It allows us to laugh, laugh hard, to then, finally, freeze when we realize that this comedy, with tragic undertones, is set against the backdrop of last century’s huge tragedies.