Books and Book Reviews: September 2009 Archives

An Insight from Godot


I have the feeling that Godot is much more referred to than read, so I'll share with you a thought:

"There's man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet."

And then later in the same monologue by Vladimir,

"One of the thieves was saved. It's a reasonable percentage."

Both quotations from Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett

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Other than to acknowledge that I have read the book, it seems presumptuous on my part to make any attempt to add to the already voluminous and sometimes vitriolic field of Hemingway studies. Perhaps the best thing I can do is to record a few prejudices and impressions and let it go with that. And perhaps I should record my strongest impression up front--upon closing the covers of the book after the last page, I had the impulse to open it again and begin leafing through and rereading in whole or in part. I longed to find my old college copy so that I could mark it up in arcane ways that are not possible with a library copy.

I have never been fond of Hemingway's style nor, for the most part, of his subject matter. I don't know that much has changed in that respect. I have more patience now than I once did with the ultra-minimalism that seems at times to make the symbols stand out like boils. If one were to take this simplistically, one could read the novel as a series of parables with meaning explicated within the text (take my example of the gored steer). However, even though it is very clear when Hemingway is using an object as a symbol, and even though that symbol is often explicitly linked to a meaning, the meaning suggested in the text is not the only meaning, and there is a depth beyond the surface of a parable. It's a subtle and interesting effect.

I don't much care about the subject matter--bull-fighting and promiscuity among a set of young expatriate Americans. Oh, and let's not forget unrequited love--or requited but unconsummated and unconsummatable love. But again, what Hemingway manages in this slight novel is to give us a sense of where it began to go wrong and how. It being civilization and we being the offspring of The Lost Generation, we might refer to it as the Lost Civilization. And it comes as a somewhat gratifying surprise (or not depending on your historical perspective) that it was not the 1960s that gave it to us.

But I think the most important thing to disclose is that I enjoyed the book. Very much. Despite all of the individual things that are not to my taste--spending the time to read it carefully and properly, gave me insight into the operation of literature, and perhaps even a little insight into people.

Fiction is, to paraphrase Picasso, "the lie that tells the truth." In a way that nonfiction cannot, fiction tells the truth about eternal things. Reading great literature, real art, gives insight into that truth--a deeper insight than is possible knowing the facts about a matter. And I think that this is sometimes the most frightening and off-putting of the features and shape of fiction.

In a deep paradox one may find that one can learn more by reading the great writers of fiction (about the things that really matter) than by reading the entire psychology and sociology sections of a library. And fiction carries this advantage--it doesn't pretend to tell you how to fix things, because wise fiction knows that any fix to a situation will only bollix it up in a new way. You don't read fiction looking for solutions--if you're a student of human nature you read it to come to an understanding of what the core problem is.

And perhaps that is where Hemingway is most successful. Because so much is stripped down and laid bare, it is relatively easy to see where the problem lies. To quote another wise man, "The fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves." And the problem is that it isn't a "tragic" flaw of enormous proportions--overweening pride, lust, avarice. No, for most of us, as demonstrated in Hemingway's book, the fault is in the single choices made one by one that lead us away from the center. Most of us never leap into full-fledged rebellion, rather we find ourselves outside the gates by inches--by single choices, single bad choices, made over time--one-by-one. Choices of which we choose to be unaware, but if we were to take the bearings of them, we would find send us subtly off-course. And choices that always seem at the time innocuous or even good. This is the Devil's most successful work--to transform us into martyrs of the moment and allow us to think that the errors we commit are noble sacrifices.

Interestingly, and perhaps most appealingly, it seems that most of the characters in Hemingway's book do not manage to convince themselves of their own innocence. They look at their choices and say they have no choice (a different form of deception), but they don't lie to themselves and say that the choice was good.

So, as you see, not an analysis of Hemingway, but just a note to say that I enjoyed the book despite myself, found much more in it than I could ever have done as a college student, and I recommend it to the attention of all. It is not a struggle to read and it has moments of insight that are startling--particularly when you never expected to see yourself in a book by Hemingway.

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Who is the Gored Steer


You probably don't care much about my reading, but it seemed good to share some of these thoughts about the book along the way. This passage may be one of the most evocative and sad of the entire book, and may give us a key to understanding much of what goes on. Then again, my reflections on it may simply be overwrought.

from The Sun Also Rises
Ernest Hemingway

The steer was down now, his neck stretched out, his head twisted, he lay the way he had fallen. Suddenly the bull left off and made for the other steer which had been standing at the far end, his head swinging, watching it all. The steer ran awkwardly and the bull caught him, hooked him lightly in the flank, and then turned away and looked up at the crowd on the walls, his crest of muscle rising. The steer came up to him and made as though to nose at him and the bull hooked perfunctorily. The next time he nosed at the steer and then the two of them trotted over to the other bull.

When the next bull came out, all three, the two bulls and the steer, stood together, their heads side by side, their horns against the newcomer. In a few minutes the steer picked the new bull up, quieted him down, and made him one of the herd. When the last two bulls had been unloaded the herd were all together.

The steer who had been gored had gotten to his feet and stood against the stone wall. None of the bulls came near him, and he did not attempt to join the herd.

This passage is followed near on by a fairly aggressive verbal attack by Mike (Brett Ashley's present husband) against Robert Cohn (her one-time pickup) in which Mike uses the following line:

"Tell me, Robert. Why do you follow Brett around like a poor bloody steer?"

So, an obvious and overt reference. However, the passage above has stronger and more lingering resonances within the work as a whole. Jake Barnes has suffered a wound during the war which makes it impossible for him to consummate his relationship with Brett. Thus he is the physical steer of the group. It is also possible that his animus toward Robert Cohn is a result not of his jealousy of Brett, but of his jealousy of and confused thoughts about Robert. This is more tentative, and only gotten at by straining against some of the borders of the text. However, it is provocative that the chief sign here is that of the gored or penetrated steer. This same steer is excluded from the crowd in a way that both Robert and Jake are excluded. But Robert continually makes feeble attempts to join the herd, and Jake while more accepted does see himself standing outside.

Another point that this attraction (if it exists) might help to explain is the reference, quoted in the passage yesterday to being a bad Catholic and possibly never being a good one. If the matter were merely Brett Ashley, it is possible that Jake could think of himself that way--especially as the passion is adulterous. But the hope of being a good Catholic is not forlorn, knowing that Brett is fickle and likely to run through another husband or two in time. But if there a mixed and uncertain feelings about Robert as well, that would clinch the deal.

I won't push this as an understanding of the book, merely as a possibility suggested by this key passage. Obviously other parts of the work would need to be brought forward to support the thesis. It may not sustain close scrutiny, but the thought that Jake may entertain thoughts, perhaps not overtly homosexual, but perhaps a certain attraction to Cohn for looks, character, and ability, does help to explain why he ultimately betrays Cohn by presenting Brett to Romero (also attacking at the same time the obnoxious Mike, who, as noted in the passage above, attacks Robert). It's complex, but it isn't out of the question. The question is, will a close reading of the rest of the book support it. If not, it is at least an interesting speculation arising from the close juxtaposition of passages and symbols.

Oh, and it is an interesting coincidence of no meaning whatsoever, that the gored steer stands against the stone wall (Stonewall). (What other sort of wall would there be in Pamplona in the late 20s early 30s--but still, amusing if one wishes to force a reading on the text--Hemingway as prophet.)

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in Hemingway. . .

from The Sun Also Rises
Ernest Hemingway

At the end of the street I saw the cathedral and walked up toward it. The first time I ever saw it I thought the facade was ugly but I liked it now. I went inside. It was dim and dark and the pillars went high up, and there were people praying, and it smelt of incense, and there were some wonderful big windows. I knelt and started to pray and prayed for everybody I thought of, Brett and Mike and Bill and Robert Cohn and myself, and all the bull-fighters, separately for the ones I liked and lumping all the rest. then I prayed for myself again, and while I was praying for myself I found I was getting sleepy, so I prayed that the bullfights would be good, and that it would be a fine fiesta, and that we would get some fishing. I wondered if there was anything else I might pray for, and I thought I would like to have some money, so I prayed that I would make a lot of money, and then I started to think how I would make it, and thinking of making money reminded me of the count, and I started wondering about where he was and regretting I hadn't seen him since that night in Monmartre, and about something funny Brett told me about him, and as all the time I was kneeling with my forehaed on the wood in front of me, and was thinking of myself as praying, I was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic, but realized there was nothing I could do about it, at least for a while, and maybe never, but that anyway it was a grand religion, and I only wished I felt religious and maybe I would next time; and then I was out in the hot sun on the steps of the cathedral, and the forefingers and thumb of my right hand were still damp, and I felt them dry in the sun. The sunlight was hot and hard, and I crossed over beside some buildings and walked back along side-streets to the hotel.

(Chapter 10--Jake Barnes speaking)

What a lovely passage. Not poetic--angular and repetitive and driving, but lovely.

I have never much cared for Hemingway--and perhaps that has been a bit of immaturity on my part. I have difficulty with artists with whom I have substantive disagreements regrading morality or general life-issues. I've never much cared for the "man's man" attitude in much of Hemingway. But perhaps that is because of my misreading, because I am quite enjoying The Sun Also Rises. Perhaps I've decided not to continually deprive myself of potentially great work because of arbitrary fiats on my own part. We all do this, most unconsciously, but I'm trying to uncover the roots of my dislike and impatience and do away with them systematically. Why? I honestly don't have any idea whatsoever--it just seems like I have too long been arrogant about my likes and dislikes with no legitimate reason.

My prejudices against certain authors have really blocked access to substantive work that is potentially a source of great insight into the human condition. And the better we know that, the better we are equipped to help ourselves and others to overcome it and to assume the more Divine Nature that the Father wants to grant us even as we live today.

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The Seventh Heaven--Naguib Mahfouz


I finished this book several days ago and only now have gotten around to saying a few words about it. To start with it is useful to reiterate a statement I made when I quoted from this book a few days back. Naguib Mahfouz is a difficult writer--not so much in the complexity of his prose as in his regionalism. His concerns are, rightly, the concerns of his country in its time and sometimes it takes a pretty thoroughgoing knowledge of recent Egyptian history to make out where Mahfouz is going and what he is saying. There are parts of his work (I'm thinking here of a work like Karnak Cafe) where the particulars important for fully understanding the story are not particularly generalizable.

The Seventh Heaven, however, has something to say to anyone who has interest in matters beyond affairs of state and recent history. The subtitle is Supernatural Tales, although, this is not an entirely accurate description, perhaps something more like Tales of the Fantastic and Supernatural might be more appropriate and would better encompass a story like that of the hotel room in which a Grand Matron is holding court. As she converses more and more and more people join her until the room is packed so full and the people eating so much that one expects a climax rather like the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera. One does not get it, instead having a bizarre, macabre, and even inhuman twist.

In the title story, a murdered man is taken into the First Heaven and tried, only to be found wanting--not so wanting as to be condemned, but enough that he must serve as spirit guide for a person on Earth. This leads to disaster and the man is ultimately condemned to relive life. The story works itself out in a tale of revenge and renewal and it is a suitable start to an interesting collection.

The book includes stories in which Satan speaks to confess that there is a man in the land who utterly defeated him. A young boy who grows up fearing a nearby wood because of its supposed haunting by demons, turns into a teen who learns that there are no demons in the wood--but then are there?

I quoted the other day from what may well be my favorite story in the collection, "Beyond the Clouds," in which a young man enters the realm of the afterlife, undergoes purgation and is set at a task appropriate for the occupation of eternity, only to meet the person with whom he was deeply in love on Earth.

You don't need to know a lot about Egypt (although it is occasionally helpful) or its politics and history to enjoy the stories in this book. They may be slight, perhaps not a master's best work, I have not read extensively enough to be able to comment on this; however, they are a good entree if you're interesting in broadening your reading horizons and including one of the more recent Nobel Prize winning authors in your reading list. This may be a place to start rather than the more famous Miramar or the more political (but highly relevant) Karnak Cafe.

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From Saul Bellow


And how very sad it is:

from Seize the Day
Saul Bellow

It made Wilhelm profoundly bitter that his father should speak to him with such detachment about his welfare. Dr. Adler like to appear affable. Affable! His own son, his one and only son, could not speak his mind or ease his heart to him. At least Tamkin sympathizes with me and tries to give me a hand, whereas Dad doesn't want to be disturbed.

I often wonder of how many American children the same can be said--how truly, bitterly sad.

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The Professor of Desire--Philip Roth


I finished the book listed in the title of this on the flight from Orlando to Washington D.C. I had to endure the cab ride to Silver Spring before I could open and finish the last two pages of the book, and with it fresh in my mind, I'm not certain that I'm ready to say anything helpful about it.

Let me start with nonessentials--having finished this book, I now have three that I brought with me to choose from--Saul Bellow's Seize the Day, the next in the David Kepesh saga--The Dying Animal by Philip Roth, or Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim. Or I can choose from the plethora of reads on my Kindle including current perusal of Ulysses or The Ambassadors.

Back to Roth--while I enjoyed the book, I was ambivalent about how I felt about the main character at the end. It was very similar to my experience with Isabel Archer at the end of Portrait of a Lady. Though for quite different reasons. Isabel comes to her ruin through her enormous pride--wanting her complete freedom, she more thoroughly destroys it than would be otherwise possible. Reading The Professor of Desire one is left with two possible conclusions regarding David Kepesh, and unfortunately I know which one I favor. The first is that early formative experiences, including a sexual liaison in his early twenties with two women at the same time, which nearly destroys one of the participants, so thoroughly colored his experience of sexuality and life that his subsequent choices were shunted down progressively more destructive paths. The second is that David Kepesh is stuck in a permanent romantic adolescence in which passion is everything and the possibility of settling into a relationship in which passion and its sexual expression were not a constant succession of progressively more pyrotechnic and cataclysmic encounters was not thinkable. This latter is a state too many men in America found themselves permanently bound up in, if one is to believe the divorce statistics and the activities of even supposedly devout Catholics.

As I said, I doubt that anything here could guide a reader one way or another with regard to the book. I need to consider it longer, more deeply, and more broadly to come to any sort of conclusion at all.

But, oh, what magnificent and controlled language, what beautiful sentences. Not lyrical in the John Updike way, but in some ways better, stronger, more filled with tension and life--more New York, less Boston. The language really is a wonder to behold, even when reading about subjects that in the abstract and by themselves are not particularly uplifting.

I'll try to write more about this when I have a better idea of what would be helpful and meaningful to say.

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Scenes from a Professoriate

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I wrote the other day of my disillusionment with John Updike--that despite his truly amazing technical aplomb with words, I found much of his fiction sterile and pointless. That is NOT to say that it is sterile and pointless, but rather that I am not the right person to find the point of an Updike tale.

I used to think the same of Philip Roth. Perhaps even more of Philip Roth because it seemed to me that he was so singly focused on one aspect of the human condition. And perhaps that is because the aspect of his focus is of particular interest, and Roth engages in it with a lustiness that certainly takes the timid New England adulterer and turns him on his head.

But, perhaps what I need to learn to do is to read properly, and to ignore the overtly offensive, understanding that my offense is really a measure of my resistance.

Take this passage from Roth:

from The Professor of Desire
Philip Roth

What little spirit smolders on in me during the last months of the marriage is visible only in class; otherwise I am so affectless and withdrawn that a rumor among the junior faculty members has me "under sedation." Ever since the approval of my dissertation I have been teaching along with the freshman course "Introduction to Fiction," two sections of the sophomore survey in "general" literature. During the weeks near the end of the term when we study Chekhov's stories, I find, while reading aloud to my students passages which I particular want them to take note of, that each and every sentence seems to me to allude to my own plights above all, as though by now every single syllable I think or utter must first trickle down through my troubles. And then there are my classroom daydreams, as plentiful suddenly as they are irrepressible, and so obviously inspired by longings for miraculous salvation--reentry into lives I lost long ago, reincarnation as a being wholly unlike myself--that I am even somewhat grateful to be depressed and without anything like the will power to set even the mildest fantasy in motion.

"I realized that when you love you must either, in your reasoning about that love, start from what is higher, more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their usual meaning, or you must not reason at all." I ask my students what's meant by these lines, and while they tell me, notice that in a far corner of the room, the poised, soft-spoken girl who is my most inteeligent, my prettiest--and my most bored and arrogant--student is finishing off a candy bar and a Coke for lunch.

You must read the rest for yourself. But what is here is beautifully, roundly written, with sentences that roll and flow out, filling up and expanding, meaning at first little, but when reread, becoming more revealing, more inviting, more explanatory of the difficulty of David Kepesh. And while these difficulties are more often than not spelled out in the sexual relations of Mr. Kepesh, they stem from a deeper source, an unexamined stream--a place that Mr. Kepesh, to this point at least, refuses to go and refuses to see.

What evolves is an amazingly convoluted, but full portrait of a man in his dissatisfaction. And while one might expect such a portrait to be depressing, perhaps to weigh one day more than it ought--this never seems to happen. Mr. Roth by the power of language alone, carries us along and amuses us. Indeed, this story at least is by turns amusing and dark--and the wonderful point is that the amusement itself is rarely dark. It stems in part for the realization that they people Roth writes about are much like ourselves--that we all (men that is--I can't imagine that Roth's writing has much appeal for women) live in much the same unexamined way. Oh, those of us who are introspective selectively examine the faults and virtues we wish to acknowledge. But we are actually like that overstuffed closet that, when the door opens, we struggle and struggle to push everything back in and seal the door behind it. We can never completely seal the door and the next time it bursts open, we're back in the mess. And there is something delightfully lifelike and refreshing to find others in similar predicaments, although not necessarily for exactly the same reasons.

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From Naguib Mahfouz


from "Beyond the Clouds"
in The Seventh Heaven
Naguib Mahfouz

He took me by the hand and led me through a lush forest to a lake of light, and told me to immerse myself within its waves of rays. I complied with the order--floating for a few seconds, before beginning to sink, slowly and without pause, until I settled in the innermost depths of the lake. The waves penetrated deep inside my being, cleansing me thoroughly. A chain of sins and errors that I had committed during my life stretched out before my sight. Each time a a sin or error would vanish, an accompanying pain would vanish with it. My weight lessened accordingly, so that I rose from my submersion little by little. This bathing went on for hours, or days, or years, until eventually I was floating once more upon the lake's surface. Finally, I alight on the land with nimbleness and glee--then entered my house.

This beautiful vision of purgatory may only have been possible in Egypt--the land that from ancient times gave us the symbol of the weighing of the heart against a feather, combined with the influence of all three of the "Abrahamic" religions. While Dante gave us the "poetic" Purgatory with its whips and goads, it may be that this gentler vision is one that more reflects the mercy and the goodness of the God we know and love.

(Naguib Mahfouz is an Egyptian writer who some years ago won the Nobel Prize in literature. He is no longer with us, but his work lives on--some of it beautiful, some of it vaguely confusing, some of it so wrapped up with concerns central to Egypt as to be nearly incomprehensible in its subtleties. But everything I've read so far has been worth the time.)

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John Updike

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I probably spill too much virtual ink over John Updike. And yet since the blog is mine, and I'm not disturbing the peace of too many people recently, I'd like to spill some more as I talk a little about the paradox Updike represents for me.

Updike's style, the sheer strength and sinuosity of his sentences, the beauty of his prose ranks second to none in the modern world for me. Any writer I like better is already dead--Waugh, Joyce, James, Woolf, Faulkner. Updike's prose, for me, stands up to these.

The paradox is that almost nothing he has written strikes me as being worth reading once I finish it. (I except here his nonfiction--unusual for me.) At this point I have read, or started nearly all of his novels, tens of short stories (some of these I would also except from the general rule I'm about to articulate) and a handful of poems. I have never failed to finish a novel and wonder, "So what was the fuss all about?" Rabbit, Beck, Witches, Sundays, Roger, you name it, and I find myself wondering how I got left out.

The subject matter should be interesting enough--after all sex and adultery in America with a Protestant spiritual edge should be material for glazed-over reading. But I reach the end of a novel to discover that sex (at least as experienced by other people) is dull beyond redemption, pointless, and is the leading cause of divorce when it occurs frequently within marriage. How odd. That really hasn't been my experience of the matter.

So I find myself picking up another book, and once again hooked by language and entranced by sheer prose mastery. And, oh dear, it's the same thing all over again. What was the point of that? Occasionally, I feel like I have a slippery hold on a revelation, but it slips away.

I understand the Swedish Academy when they talk about American literature being too "provincial." What they actually mean to say is "too obsessed with a kind of adolescent prurience about sex that doesn't really open up meaning, message, or the art to new and interesting ideas." (Not that what the academy selects is all that much sophisticated in most cases.)

But I know that in this case, I'm just not seeing it. The prose is luscious--even some of the stories promising, and yet I get to the end and am nearly always disappointed. Is that really Updike's fault, or is it, more likely, a fault in the reader?

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from September 2009.

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