August 26, 2005

Axel's Castle, Edmund Wilson

Well, how embarrassing. I think I thought about some of Wilson's analysis of Symbolist literature, but I only remember the parts that agreed with suspicions I already had. Principally I'm comforted that The Remembrance of Things Past wasn't going to get less depressing than Swann's Way and that all the people were in fact self-defeating in more or less morally unpleasant ways. I'll happily forgo the technical skill of Proust's dying world; if I want to be in it I'd rather visit, say, the jolly brothers Goncourt.

And second recognition; T. S. Eliot goes all high-church & his verse turns into iffy Yeats.

The chapter on Gertrude Stein is unusually convincing in its argument that she's unreadable but fundamentally important, like the Velvet Underground I suppose; and the one on James Joyce is fun because it was written during Finnegans Wake's original serialized publication. Wilson is not so overcome by Joyce's method. There are publications devoted to Joyce and hypertext, though there seems to be no hypertext of FW or U; famously the surviving holder of copyright is "a Joyce not a Joycean", so there probably won't be, either. Pity.

Axel of the eponymous Castle sounds a totally unreadable pile and madly seductive to the touchy young: like The Fountainhead or The Flame of Araby. Castles! Cryptonomicon-sized piles of gold! gorgeous young Rosicrucian aristocrats who fall in love while trying to kill each other, only Axel persuades her to an immediate joint suicide because even for them no life could be as good as their fantasies... It's really just as well I didn't come across this at fourteen. To my surprise, Axel isn't online; not on Project Gutenberg, not at the Online Books Page. There are hard copies, some in what sound like lovely nineteenth-c. editions, what with Symbolists enjoying the decorative arts. The author Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (count de, etc.), is all biographized and everything.

There's a nice bit about the importance of sleep to the Symbolists, both as a naturally Symbolist realm and a suitably lethargic revolt against the demands of the modern world. It might cross Rosicrucianism, too; The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance mentioned that some esoteric adepts regarded sleep as a mystic art, one with which they could see or do what they could not waking.

With that in mind, I was dubious of Wilson's closing paragraph, which is largely a defense of the Symbolists' dreaming retreat into "things that are dying—the whole belle-lettristic tradition of Renaissance culture perhaps, compelled to specialize more and more, more and more driven in on itself, as industrialism and democratic education have come to press it closer and closer&mdash" Well, but the whole tradition includes the parts that did and the parts that didn't have science and democracy as their descendants. Not that there's a clear line between those parts, any more than The Metaphysical Club could lay out distinct parentage for modern political alliances. I get massively annoyed by accounts that assume the only 'real' or interesting part of the past was the part most like us (e.g., The System of the World) and on nearly the same principle am annoyed by accounts that assume that the only 'good' or interesting part of the past is the part we've given up.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

April 11, 2005

Third volumes, more alike

Neither A Spectacle of Corruption and The Damascened Blade, each third in a series by, respectively, David Liss and Barbara Cleverly, are as interesting as their first two volumes. They're both converging to a normal pattern of series adventure/mystery novels, of a tough but connected solitary man with a new wistful or cynical romance every book.

This is all right, but was done so completely by Raymond Chandler that I'd rather have had more of the social commentary that the total-outsiderness of the first novels had. For one thing, there's more contemporaneous fiction from either period that follows the well-connected. For another, the closer they get to being comfortable in their worlds, the less useful they are as commentary on their eras seen (will we nill we) from ours.

If I were fonder of either character, I would be less ruthless in wishing them interesting lives.

Damascened... has a lot of fun playing the blood-and-honour mores of the Scottish and Pathan highlands against each other. It tickles my memory that some pre-War fiction had even more fun with it, being much less shy about bloodshed and revenge, but I can't put my finger on it. Probably Kipling, of course:

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
       When two strong men stand face to face,
       tho' they come from the ends of the earth!

LCCN: PS 356 I7814 S64 2004 (A Spectacle of Corruption)

ISBN: 078671333X (The Damascened Blade)

October 26, 2004

Short stories by novelists

After reading Tim Powers' Night Moves and Julian Barnes' Cross Channel in close succession—alternation, really—I'd look for more short Barnes, as efficient doses of what I like Barnes for; but not for more short Powers. I have been wondering whether the problem is that Powers' style doesn't excerpt well, or whether it's that Powers tries to compress his stories instead of excerpting, and they really don't work for that. (His own afterword suggests that he thinks much the same.) One gets three brisk movements: something is creepy; it leaps dangerously to the foreground; the survivors face the rest of their lives with relief and diminished ambition. It's not a bad plot, but I like it better with the room for misdirection, foreshadowing, and research that his novels give him.

Cross Channel's stories sometimes resolve into diminished expectation, and they have enough WWI in them to obtain a little of the creepy, but they have a much wider range in pace and characterization. He doesn't compress as much plot into one story, although the whole make an arc. And, of course, Barnes is all lit'ry, which tends to excerpt well.

I especially liked "Hermitage", which improves two familiar genres by joining them: its main characters move to France to avoid the stuffy social conventions of England, but they don't go wild in Paris, they weave themselves into a rural southern village. I suppose it's three genres, if you count the depiction of a happy lasting marriage as a genre. The parallel that leaps to mind is Simon & Garfunkel's "Bookends", but there must be enough novels to make it a genre.

ISBN: 1892284901 (Night Moves)

ISBN: 0679446915 (Cross Channel)

October 09, 2003

'Realism' vs. Moralism

Two anthologies from Distributed Proofreading which have not weathered time and politics equally well.

Southern Lights and Shadows, ed. William Dean Howells and Henry Mills Alden, claims The most noticeable characteristic of the extraordinary literary development of the South since the Civil War is that it is almost entirely in the direction of realism. Unless this was an excuse to refer to their mountaineers, their slattern country wives, their shy rustic men and maids, their grotesque humorists, their wild religionists, even their black freedmen, under cover of compliment, I'm astounded this made sense even in 1907... the best of the stories are about rural slyness, the worst are off the back of an Aunt Jemima box, the middle is Scott boiled till lumpy. (All the men have military titles and expensive horses, there's a midnight elopement, the fair maiden turns her horse steed across the way as the pursuers fire; none know her wound until she faints at the altar, just as her father breaks down the church door to underscore the minister's pronounciation of the holy sentence!

But she's all right, and there's a wedding announcement in the paper. )

Stories Worth Rereading is explicitly moralistic and Christianizing, but didn't get up my nose nearly as much as the first. It lives up to its own claims better. A good part of the baggage it carries along with its claims is less annoying, too; slaves preach as well as being preached to - and the evil master falls down with an agony in his guts, repentant. Plucky shoeless boys get good jobs based on their characters and diligence. Young women new to paid employment are told to get used to constructive criticism, and buckle down to it. The first American Indian to speak in court wins his case, is represented as a hero, and neither has to convert to Christianity nor to die painfully to deserve it. It's predictable and moralizing and twee, but it isn't mean. In fact, if I consider the stories as moral lessons for the people in power as well as the plucky underlings, it's perfectly healthy.

If the underlings were reading "Suffer Pluckily" stories while the scions of the rich were reading Nietszche or the like, not so healthy for the underlings. There's an argument for national curriculum.

June 08, 2003

Liberty Meadows, Frank Cho

Subtitle: Eden Book 1

It's an okay comic, set in an animal rescue facility (demented, anthropomorphized animals; coupla nebbish guys; babelicious, athletic women). I checked it out of the library because somewhere, a while ago, I ran across an annoyed comment by Frank Cho that he had gotten a complaint from someone about how oppressively beautiful the main female character is. IIRC - I probably don't - his defense, aside from 'get over it already', was an engaged puzzlement that a competent, pleasant, central female character should be so annoying.

I think I know why his representation of her is annoying. The female characters (Brandy, some unnamed ag students in the bar - none of the animals, why not? ) - are drawn in as realist a style as he uses. Some of this is that the humans are more realistic than the animals; but the men are less detailed than the women, and Brandy is most 'posed' of the lot. Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, pp. 28-37, has a convincingly illustrated argument that realist drawing reduces the amount of reader identification with a character. Something I don't see in Understanding..., but think is at least as important, is that distortions of a drawn character to express emotion are a strong appeal to identification, because they're much closer to how we feel when we have the emotion than to how we see other people who we deduce have the emotion. Brandy, when emotional, is still drawn realistically. All the other series characters are distorted at least sometimes when strongly emotional.

So the oddity about Brandy, heroic female character, is that she's drawn as the one character in the book we couldn't possibly be. Or possibly she's the character who has no subjective existence to express, which is even creepier.

There is a excellent book by Marina Warner on a related thought: Monuments & Maidens: The allegory of the female form. If I recall correctly - and alas, it's been a while since I read it - this combines lots of evidence that Beaux Arts Paris usually represented all the strengths and virtues by realistic female images, with lots of evidence that the same people had no such expectations or allowances for actual women; and she may have an argument that these habits are mutually reinforcing.

Liberty Meadows, ISBN: 1-58240-260-4

Understanding Comics, ISBN: 0-87816-243-7

Monuments & Maidens, ISBN: 0520227336

January 14, 2003

Clever Victorian women

John Marchmont's Legacy, Mary Elizabeth Braddon
The Clever Woman of the Family, Charlotte Yonge

Braddon's book is tremendous fun because she has a really wonderful villainess. One of the great pleasures I get from Victorian and Edwardian novels is a particular degree of character development, comfortably between playing out the social 'station to which God was pleased to call' a character, and playing out the completely internal but equally deterministic torments of the psychological worldviews after Freud. Trollope's Cousin Henry makes me perfectly happy in this regard.

John Marchmont's legacy doesn't directly affect Olivia, a woman fit for greatness but consigned to a tiny life. By the time something interesting happens, she's cripplingly cramped by having tried to be good in a way she wasn't good at, but she remains so balanced between her worse instincts and her better intentions that she's a lot more interesting than either the romantic leads or the undiluted villain. Also, she gets a lot of riproaring purple prose:

When this girl and I are equals - when she, like me, stands alone upon a barren rock, far out amid the waste of waters, with not one memory to hold her to the past, with not one hope to lure her onward to the future, with nothing but the black sky above and the black waters around -- then we may grow fond of each other.

The rest of the plot is inheritance-and-true-love melodrama, not totally unlike East Lynne, though not quite as sensationalist.

The Clever Woman of the Family has a much more realistic plot, but recognizes some of the same difficulties for intelligent Victorian women too well-brought-up to do anything with their talents. Yonge expects that a successful upbringing will always put a stronger male mind in charge of the flailing female one, but the novel doesn't seem to believe that this is likely or easy. Not Middlemarch, but not just polemic.

So wrote clew.

December 02, 2002

Escaping the bad side of town

The Pact, Drs. Sampson Davis, George Jenkins, and Rameck Hunt, with Lisa Frazier Page

Reaching Up for Manhood, Geoffrey Canada

Two books written by black men who grew up in bad circumstances and escaped. Canada has a faint air of bluster or swagger in his writing, not distracting, but an unusual counterpoint to his discussions of feelings and social engineering. The three doctors use plenty of slang, and have equally grim anecdotes, but mostly come across as really sweet.

Problem with Texas-style access to education, of letting the top 10% of each school into the desirable universities: thoe from the worst schools will be terrifically behind in all sorts of knowledge; the authors of The Pact manage to sound only exasperated about getting through premed and med school surrounded by children and friends of doctors, who understood a lot more of the system.

So wrote clew.

November 07, 2002

Mysterious Victorian women

The Law and the Lady, Wilkie Collins
The Leavenworth Case, Anna Catherine Green
The Disastrous Mrs. Weldon, Brian Thompson

The biography of Mrs. Weldon has more vivid and unlikely events than the Wilkie Collins novel, and that's a high standard. Collins' Lady is the actor in her own life, both making mistakes and ferreting out the truth, which seems fresh and lively enough for its day; but the truly disastrous Mrs. Weldon had as much vigor and more tragic, real-life flaws. She was important in the reframing of British laws on lunacy and women's rights; she argued many cases herself partly because she was, in fact, talented, and very often because she overestimated her own talents. She never believed she was wrong, and she hardly ever believed she would lose, and she got away with rather more than the strict facts of her life would seem to justify. If looking for something pleasantly scandalous to read on a train, and your own diary won't do, consider that - since he does not write for Household Words - Thompson can be a bit more specific about parts of Weldon's private life than Collins could be about anyone's. Mrs. Weldon's private life involved Gounod and a lengthy lesbian affair and orphans and madhouses, and was documented pretty well, since she was generally in either the courts or the newspapers and also wrote an enormously long autobiography to justify herself.

Green was a bestseller in her day and respected for her fiction's grasp of law, but it's a stiff novel, and even the hero's description of the heroine is not moving. Elizabeth Peters recommends Green's The Affair Next Door, which I will keep looking for.

So wrote clew.

September 06, 2002

Lost in Japan

Too Late for the Festival, Rhiannon Paine

Fear & Trembling, Amélie Nothomb

Paine worked for a few years in Japan without having planned to; friends at HP Japan offered her a job as a technical writer. Maybe that's why she isn't embittered by having totally failed to fit into or even reliably figure out Japan or the Japanese. She barely learned the language, found out about various social taboos after having broken them frequently, and - more than once - describes something compelling that she stumbled across by accident.

Nothomb's book is autobiographical fiction. It's wonderfully short. The literary purity of having hardly any plot, but a lot of emotional reaction, is perfectly comfortable at novella-length; a lazy dinner could probably include the telling, and might. What plot there is is Failure to Adapt to an unfair corporate structure, despite speaking the language fluently. She wanted to be accepted, thought she knew how, & failed because of it; completely unlike Paine's accidental friendships.

So wrote clew.