Books and Book Reviews: August 2002 Archives

The Dea(r)th of Good Prose


Okay, here's my chance to give equal opportunity offense, but please stay with me through this, it may or may not have a point.

I belong to two reading groups--one catholic and one noncatholic. Our noncatholic group tends to read a lot of contemporary stuff along with a good mixture of older prose. Recently I've noticed a really depressing trend in literature. The books that the critics are touting as "great" "worth reading," and so on tend to a prose style that verges on the prose equivalent of McDonald's. To take two recent examples, Bel Canto, and The Lovely Bones.

Now understand, I am speaking only of the quality of the prose, not the characters, plot or characterization. But I have noticed that these two highly touted novels suffer from a surfeit of Hemingway (who single-handedly managed wreaked the greatest damage on prose since Thomas Peckett Prest [who at least had the benefit of being lurid]). The prose is flat, emotionless, and uninteresting. I'm not giving anything away when I tell you that The Lovely Bones begins in heaven with a dead 14 year old girl. Would that she had learned something in school about what makes narrator's voices interesting! Would that she had not fallen into the pit of countless repetitive and dull sentences.

On the other hand Bel Canto is. . . dull. The prose does nothing interesting. Perhaps the story line dictates this. But I think it's another abominable critical trend. I look at Ha Jin's Waiting (I read it almost a year ago and I am still waiting). Not only is the prose flat, something that is probably forgivable in someone who is writing in language not his own, but the story is interminable. When i was finished with it, I was certain that I had been through War and Peace at least twice.

None of these writers has the sheer prose sparkle of a John Updike or a Tom Wolfe. As much as I found Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections pretentious, and the antics around its publication deplorable, the prose was at least supple. The author took chances with language, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, but at least playing and trying things out--stretching the limits of what can be done in a novel intended for the mainstream.

You know you're in a bad prose situation when translations are presenting some of the very best English. The books of Perez-Reverte and the abominably post-modernist predeconstructed Corelli's Mandolin both sport prose that sings--it is lush and evocative, carrying the reader on the wave of language.

Yes, I know, most people want this quality in their poetry, but would prefer prose straight forward. Don't get me wrong, I'm not asking for the new Henry James producing sentences of such length and tortured convolution they require five or six readings just to make sense of them. But I would like more writers like Franzen, Updike, Wolfe, and, if she could ever get past her anti-American political agenda, Barbara Kingsolver. As unlikable as V. S. Naipaul may be as a person, A Bend in the River is remarkable, supple, and evocative prose.

I realize that I have committed the cardinal sin of simply espousing opinion without any real proof; however, the proof is in the books themselves. All of these books are worth reading and worth a careful reader's attention. But then compare them to the careful, ringing, and lovely prose of a Mariette in Ecstasy. Most of our novelists have eschewed true cultivation of language for the telling of story. The two need not be mutually contradictory, as centuries of writings prior to the present day show. Moreover, one breath of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Flannery O'Connor would show that vibrancy of prose had survived the transition to the 20th century.

Prose need not be dull, wooden, gray, or emotionless to tell a story. I'm afraid some of our very best story-tellers have not yet happened on to this fact.

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Other Important Trifles


Other Important Trifles

In case you couldn't tell by now I truly love books, literature, poetry, prose, reading. As a child I was the one who read the cereal boxes and whatever else didn't move fast enough. Thus, this prayer:

Bibliomaniac's Prayer
Eugene Field

Keep me, I pray, in wisdom's way
That I may truths eternal seek;
I need protecting care to-day,--
My purse is light, my flesh is weak.
So banish from my erring heart
All baleful appetites and hints
Of Satan's fascinating art,
Of first editions, and of prints.
Direct me in some godly walk
Which leads away from bookish strife,
That I with pious deed and talk
May extra-illustrate my life.

But if, O Lord, it pleaseth Thee
To keep me in temptation's way,
I humbly ask that I may be
Most notably beset to-day;
Let my temptation be a book,
Which I shall purchase, hold, and keep,
Whereon when other men shall look,
They 'll wail to know I got it cheap.
Oh, let it such a volume be
As in rare copperplates abounds,
Large paper, clean, and fair to see,
Uncut, unique, unknown to Lowndes.

Okay, not great poetry--but, certainly apropos. Oh, and the Lowndes, referred to in the last line in a famous bibliographer just prior to Field's time. Eugene Field is most famous for a couple of pieces of poetry often associated with children: "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod," and "Little Boy Blue," both unabashedly sentimental--the popular poetry of a prior era.

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Favorite Books List


Favorite Books List

I promise, I'm not trying to blog poor Kairos to death, but his very interesting post inspired my own thinking about a list of favorite books. (That's by way of saying you can blame him for this:-)) As I thought about it, I also thought that perhaps I should rank them, because otherwise the list is likely to look like that of a pretentious windbag (as though you hadn't already figure THAT out for yourself). So as I embark on my list, let me place at the very top of the list my three all-time favorite books/pieces of literature:

J. R. R. Tolkien-Lord of the Rings
Mark Twain--Tom Sawyer
Ray Bradbury--Dandelion Wine.

There, now that no one can accuse me of pretentious, the following is a list in no particular order of my favorite fiction. Nonfiction and spiritual books will have to wait for a more considered presentation.

Flannery O'Connor--Everything. An amazing, intense, fascinating, quirky artist.

Love in the Ruins --idiosyncratic, strange, nearly surreal.

The Haunting of Hill House forget the modern movie version--the 1963 Claire Bloom is closer to the book--still read the book memorable for its wonderful send-off "Whatever walks there, walks alone." Chilling and strangely sad.

The Turn of the Screw I really didn't much care for this until I grew old enough to know what it was really talking about. Now I find it one of the most eerily frightening books around.

Ulysses--Yes, the book that more people have started than ever thought of finishing, fascinating, aggravating, modernist, and ultimately a very satisfying puzzle, if one can overlook the sacrilege and very scatological humor.

Winesburg, Ohio--I love this book without reason and without apology--kind of the way I feel about Tom Sawyer--can't explain it, and will probably never read it in a way that would allow me to do so.

To the Lighthouse--I don't care if some regard her as an elitist virago, I find this book lovely beyond description with its gentle evocation of the persistence in memory of one long gone.

In Search of Lost Time--Read Alain de Boton's remarkable How Proust Can Change Your Life for a sense of why this is such a marvelous if flawed work. Talk about dubious morality!

War and Peace Skim those tedious essays on the nature of history and really savor this magnificent and interesting story.

Dune--That's right, I said "Dune." And while I'm admitting these deep dark things I may as well confess to H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, Peter Straub's Ghost Story and Stephen King's Salem's Lot (With that little revelation, my stock probably tumbled more than the entire Dow Jones over the last 18 months--oh well.)

Tom Jones--Yes following on my obsession with 17th century poetry is my obsession with 18th century novels, include here Tobias Smollet's Humphrey Clinker and Peregrine Pickle, Richardson's Clarissa, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, and Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland. (That's not to count all the wonderful age of Gothics Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolfo [and nearly anything else by Anne Radcliffe] and others)

Bleak House Who can help but admire the story of the endless lawsuit of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce and the people wrapped up in it.

All of Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, Dorothy Sayers, Most of Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, and others of their ilk. (I know, the barometer keeps falling--that's okay, you'll have a more realistic estimate of what is written here).

All of M.R. James and most of Henry James. All of Nathaniel Hawthorne and nearly nothing by Melville (Here I agree largely with Kairos--side note to Kairos--You might enjoy In the Heart of the Sea which is a nice retelling of the story of the voyage that inspired Moby Dick.

Are you sufficiently bored yet? Perhaps more telling are those writers I simply can't stand--for example, Hemingway. I know, I know, you can tell me all you want about the remarkable transformation of style as a result of his spare, lean writing, it still strikes me as so much macho heavy-handed folderol.

Okay, enough, I have presumed upon your patience too much. There are many, many, many more. But I'll talk about plays and poetry, nonfiction, and spirituality some time in the future--if I haven't alienated my entire readership. Thanks for letting me share some of my thinking.

(As Pascal said to one of his correspondents--"If I'd had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.")

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Back to Foote


The discussion continues, and I'm somewhat disturbed to see that Foote's postulate is taken without any real questioning of its underpinnings. John at Disputations has this to say:

Last idea for now: Foote's statement was, "The best novelists have all been doubters." But Foote's judgment, and literary judgment generally, was formed in a culture of doubt. Our choice of "the best novelists" may say more about us and our culture than it does about whether doubt causes great art.

To which I would respond--that's investing pretty heavily in someone who has nothing more than an opinion in a letter as credentials. What are Foote's qualifications for such a literary judgment? He is certainly not a renowned scholar of literature and given his own body of work I would be disinclined to give much credence to his judgments outside the question of the Civil War. Not that he isn't entitled to an opinion--but that is what it is--an opinion with all of the force of an opinion, and without the force of years of work on the subject.

I could equally well say that the greatest novels were by people who had no doubts--The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, and War and Peace, all often on the list of the greatest novels of all time were by two Russians who did not struggle with belief in the way Foote would have you believe all great novelists do. For that matter, some of Greene's greatest work The Power and the Glory, Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, and End of the Affair were written during a time in his life in which there was little or no doubt about the truths of the Catholic Church.

No, I would not give excessive weight to a postulation. I would say once again that great novels come out of struggle, not doubt. The struggle can be with the truths of the faith, it can be with wrestling with the mysteries of God and the full understanding of the meaning of Jesus Christ in a life. Flannery O'Connor did not doubt--her faith was rock solid, and her books Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away are being published today as they will most likely continue to be for some time. On the other hand, the one-time popular, virulently ant-Catholic James Gould Cozzens cannot claim the same for the vast majority of his oeuvre.

Once again, I contend that those who are restlessly searching through the faith, yearning toward God, probably produce the finest work. If Mother Teresa had written, I expect that she would have written some profound meditations that might approach poetry, but she would not have written a very fine novel because much of the sense of struggle, in human terms, had been resolved. It isn't firm faith, but the lack of anything to grapple with, Union with God, that makes a novel unnecessary.

I think it is safe to say the Jane Austen, Henry Fielding, Lawrence Sterne, Tobias Smollett, Daniel Defoe, and a vast majority of other writers up to and including Charles Dickens had no real doubts about the existence of God. The vast majority of writing after the Death of Jesus up to the present time in western culture is permeated and underlain by a solid belief in God and in Jesus Christ. This nonsense about doubt is a chronological absurdity that has little validity even in the 20th century. It as, as even this very argument you are reading, a biased representation set out to validate the world view of the proponent. It carries little or no weight and needn't be regarded as anything more than and interesting and evocative postulation. One can play off it, but one would be wise to carefully consider it before accepting the unsubstantiated argument. One might also wish to consider one's terms in examining it. Draw up the list of what you think are the very finest novels, and then examine it--how many of them were by people who were "doubters" at the time of writing?

As with all arguments about literature and aesthetics, this one must be endlessly subjective. Even so I acquiesce, that my own words above are simply a subjective view (from one who believes) of the literary scene. I will point out that one of the greatest voices in the English Language--William Shakespeare is not, nor has any legitimate argument ever made him out to be a doubter.

Doubt, I maintain is not the cause of great novels, rather struggle, an internal dynamic that has not yet found resolution. A person who is coming from St. Augustine's early years "Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee," this is the kind of person who brings forth the finest works of the novel.

I believe I'll take up the other contentions of John's post later, as they require a somewhat fuller representation than I can make in the brief time afforded to me now.

{Revised version}

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Harold Bloom who, despite all of his inherent excesses, I thoroughly enjoy reading recently received this treatment at the hands of Joseph Epstein, Read and enjoy.

In an interview in the Paris Review, he declared that he never revises his prose, and nothing in his work refutes this impressive claim. Any critic ready to avail himself of such gargoylesque words as “psychokabbalistic” and “pneumognostic,” who can refer to a passage in Montaigne as an “apotropaic talisman,” and can write about the cosmos having been “reperspectivized by Tolstoy,” may be many things, but he ain’t no aesthete.
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Philip Pullman


The ever-delightful Amy Welborn advises us that Philip Pullman has pulled out yet another stop.

Pullman, 55, won this year's Whitbread book award for the final instalment of the His Dark Materials trilogy, in which he created a parallel universe ruled by a senile, viciously sadistic deity who has to be deposed in battle so the inhabitants can join with angels in creating a "republic of heaven". The Catholic Herald called his books "the stuff of nightmares" and "worthy of the bonfire". Another critic cautioned: "Christian parents beware." Pullman, who writes for children but shuns the category, "children's author", is only outsold by JK Rowling's Harry Potter series and has a vast adult readership. Keen to tackle received ideas on religion, he recently called CS Lewis's highly Christian Narnia books "blatantly racist" and "monumentally disparaging of children". Such is his hatred of domineering, organised religion, he has become something of an evangelical atheist. During a debate on morality in fiction at the Edinburgh international books festival at the weekend, Pullman warned that in the climate of threatened attacks on Iraq and the crisis in the Middle East, we live in a Godless and uncertain age, and unless writers wrestled with the larger questions of moral conduct, they would become useless and irrelevant.

It's a real shame that the enormously talented Pullman has not read (or perhaps refuses to internalize) what Dostoyevski observed ages ago and what James Hynes reiterated more recently, "A man who believes in nothing is capable of anything." Atheism has certainly proven a beacon of light to all nations. Think how well we would all be served if every world leader were of the caliber of a Stalin, a Mao, or a Pol Pot!

I know, I'm preaching to the choir here, but Pullman annoys me because he wastes a prodigious talent in work unworthy of him. I think about the parable of the three talents, and if ever a talent were buried. However, always when I consider these things, I am led to cast my mind upward toward God, and I offer a prayer for Philip that his obviously damaged heart might be healed.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from August 2002.

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