The hour of reckoning–honestly, a PayPal button? Yes, please.



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Does a purely scientific world have imagination?–Ray Bradbury’s answer in “The Exiles”

I have to confess, this story is undertaken partly as an assignment from a reader and fellow blogger, Ste J.  Having asked for some notions of what readers would like to see me post about, some story, novel, or poem (fiction being my forté rather than non-fiction), I have taken it upon myself to do as Ste J (otherwise known as Steve Johnson) suggested and post on a “cheesy horror” fiction, or something similar.  I have chosen to write today on Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Exiles,” which if not found in a short story collection of his can be found in The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction.  Thus, though the story is a sort of cheesy horror story set in the future, and therefore also science fiction at the same time, it’s not written by a cheesy author, as Ray Bradbury is well-respected in many quarters.

The dual nature of the story is apparent not only in the fact that it partakes both of the horror story and the science fiction story, but also in the remarkable title, “The Exiles.”  There are two different kinds of exiles in this story, dead authors and their most famous characters being the first exiles, and the actual living human beings of the year 2120 who follow them into space unintentionally, when going to colonize Mars being the “second wave” of exiles.  As develops when the characters on both sides begin to talk among themselves, the dead authors (who occupy the same level of reality as their most famous characters in the categories of “science fiction, fantasy, horror, or the supernatural”) are on Mars because nearly all copies of their books have been burned as irresponsible fictions on Earth.  The space travellers, on the other hand, are approaching Mars because they have made Earth unliveable; they don’t know what’s making them see spirits and have mysterious maladies that often deal death, or see witches and suffer curses, but they do have the last copies of the “forbidden books” with them.  As it turns out, both Halloween and Christmas have been banned and eliminated, and though the captain of the ship and his doctor cannot figure out how the men can have been having horrible visions and strange illnesses, since they are only mentioned in the forbidden books, they have brought the last copies of the books with them, for what purpose they cannot yet determine.

Edgar Allan Poe, the famous mystery and horror writer, is the ringleader of the authors, and has as an eager second Ambrose Bierce; on the other hand, there’s Charles Dickens, who was only included in the first mysterious wave of exiles because of the ghosts in A Christmas Carol and some of his other books, and who is unwilling to inflict any punishments on the arriving spacemen.  His characters are participating in the sort of party scene for that holiday made popular in that novel, and refusing to take part in the aggression.  Some of those who are involved are Bram Stoker (author of Dracula), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Henry James (The Turn of the Screw), Washington Irving (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), L. Frank Baum (The Wizard of Oz), et. al, including any author whose works are not strictly scientific and factual.  But the saddest fantasy character and the one who seems most pitiful to all the others is the now dessicated figure of Santa Claus.  The authors and their characters determine to go on to other planets, farther and farther out into space, if the humans obsessed with science continue to follow them and are not deterred by the nightmares and hexes cast by their witches and the like (and one of the oddest things is that these once-living people and their never-having-lived-except-in-imagination characters occupy the same level of reality).

When the humans finally do alight on the surface of Mars, they decide a fitting gesture to mark their transition to a new world would be to burn each and every one of the last of their copies of the fictional works which do contain horror, science fiction, fantasy, or supernatural characters and events.  They hear a scream, and have a sudden sense of a vacuum as the books burn.  But one of the men–a sort of Everyman with the commonly occurring name “Smith”–remembers a scene from fantasy fiction when he sees an emerald city (Oz) topple in the distance as the last copy of The Wizard of Oz is burned.  The captain makes him report to the ship’s doctor.  The final straw takes place just a second later:

“The men tiptoed, guns alert, beyond the ship’s aseptic light to gaze at the long sea and the low hills.  ‘Why,’ whispered Smith, disappointed, ‘there’s no one here at all, is there?  No one here at all.’  The wind blew sand over his shoes, whining.”

It’s illuminating, of course, that Bradbury, a predominantly fantasy and science fiction author, puts things in black and white in this story.  It takes a great deal of imagination to come up with many of the concepts scientists come up with on a regular basis, and we always have that much-belabored truism “Truth is stranger than fiction.”  Yet, there are layers and layers of truth in this story, and one must decide whether or not one believes that a world without fiction would indeed be inhabited only by the wind blowing sand across one’s feet, a symbol of death and dearth and sterility.  I for one would find it a far inferior place, and think liars would probably be much more popular than they are, purely for their imaginative efforts, were fiction writers not available.

I’ve given a quick summary of this entire story, and I know I didn’t issue a spoiler alert, but it is a very short story, and one which is worth reading even when you know (or intuit) ahead of time what the outcome is going to be.  It’s also just a bit kitschy (if not entirely cheesy, as Ste J requested), and a little dated, by now, since the time when we have with a Mars Rover and a great deal of imagination scientifically speaking already explored part of the surface of Mars.  As well, it’s one of a great number of literary works which rely on or refer to other literary works for part of what makes them functioning stories, and naturally it helps if you have some inkling of the stories involved which are being referred to.  If nothing else, it could guide you to some of the great stories of imaginary worlds and people which are ours to share.  Let’s hope we have the sense to keep our book monitors under control in the real world, and forego book burning and destruction of our shared texts–when you take away a book, you had better be sure that you know what you’re doing, and whose reality you might be impairing (we do not want to find only the dry sand blowing over our feet in any real world we have to inhabit!).  And that’s my post for today.

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The Lagginess of the Long-Disdained Blogger–Or, where is everyone?

For a little more than a week now, I have been paying careful attention to my blogging, mainly in terms of getting posts done, and out to what I’ve always fondly imagined is my public.  I consider that to consist of not only my faithful friends who comment regularly on what I’ve come up with, each in his or her own personal way, but also those many shy or non-commenting bloggers and readers and web-surfers who presumably find something useful or entertaining on my site, since they do keep coming back from many countries across the globe.  I have been paying careful attention especially because since the beginning of the summer, I’ve lost a number of readers, or at least my stats (and I do try not to be obsessed with them, but….) have dropped from what they usually are.

I have imagined that perhaps this was initially because I had stopped blogging as frequently as I used to, my time being taken up with some other responsibilities and duties and a few fun activities that I couldn’t drag myself away from.  So, starting about a week or two ago, I stopped lagging and started publishing again at my former rate, which is to say around two posts a week, on the average.  I guess it’s like weight gain, though:  you can put it on in a few days, but can’t take it off for weeks.  So I guess once you lose readers, you take a far longer time to regain them or to find others than you did to lose them.  My only hope is that maybe people read me more during the school year because they are researching their favorite authors, and find something of use in my posts (though of course I have also to hope they are using my material if at all in a responsible manner).  And then, of course, it’s not all about me, as a friend recently pointed out:  people tend not to blog or read blogs as much during the summer as they do during the year, because there are so many active outside pursuits to take part in.

Be all this speculation as it may, if you have favorite authors or topics that you’d like to see written upon, and you have any reason to suppose from what you’ve read of my posts before that I might be inclined and capable of commenting on these authors or topics, please drop me a comment and let me know, and I’ll try to do so.  (Trying, of course, not to lag again!).  Shadowoperator


Filed under Full of literary ambitions!

“The personal is political”–Two stories of marriage gone awry, from Jane Smiley and Joan Didion

On the surface of the matter, the two novels I’m going to make some comment on today could not be more different.  The first, Jane Smiley’s novel Private Life, starts just after the Civil War, and traces the whole course (nearly) of a marriage, from the early days when there is still hope to the sad remainder, the ashes of hope, near the end of life.  The second novel, by contrast, Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, is a more recently set novel, taking place in the late 1960’s, almost contemporaneous with its date of publication in 1970.  The first novel shows a woman observing all marital proprieties, though chafing against them.  The second, a woman who regularly rebels not just in spirit, but who is no longer quite sure what marital proprieties are, or which ones pertain.  Smiley’s novel is set in the American Mid- and Southwest:  it starts in Missouri, and travels with its main characters to the area on the coast near San Francisco.  It always seems to have a local sense of place, if that makes sense to my readers.  Though Didion’s novel takes place in the Southwest too, and in fact is mainly set in Los Angeles, its surrounds, and Las Vegas, it has an international frame of reference which includes New York City.  Private Life describes both the mundane and intimate daily life of a wife and her Navy-background husband, Margaret Early and Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, as they live together stolidly day-by-day and traces a gradual arc of development in Margaret’s knowledge of and feelings for her husband.  Play It As It Lays, by contrast, focuses on only a short span of time in the yearly life of the wife of a movie executive, her name being Maria and his Carter.  The first novel develops a sense of crisis gradually, and has its “big bang” at the very end; the second novel refers back elliptically to isolated former events, but subsists in a constant state of crisis, though the “answer,” the wife’s philosophical statement, and an expected crisis of sorts does emerge at the end.

The novels both show a mismatched couple, however, and both novels begin at a point in the end of the time arc and then flashback and work forward to that time again.  As well, the rallying slogan of students and feminists from the 1960’s and 1970’s, “The personal is political,” applies to both novels, both marriages, and is at the heart of our discussion today.  As some may recall and others may come to know, the slogan “The personal is political”  was popularized by feminist Carol Hanisch in her 1969 essay of the same name.  As one may discover by consulting Wikipedia, “It was a challenge to the nuclear family and family values.”  Whereas Jane Smiley’s novel makes the point directly, however, by showing how historically important events in the daily life of the nation affect a wife and her husband attempting to live together when it is clear almost from the beginning that they are not really compatible, Joan Didion’s novel makes the point in a more convoluted way, by showing another mismatched couple in which the wife is longing not for freedom of self-expression so much as for that very nuclear family life her husband disdains.  Both wives lose a baby in the respective stories, Margaret to early infant death and Maria to an abortion insisted on by her husband because he doubts the baby is his.  And both wives are far more affected by these deaths than the husbands, Andrew indifferently accepting the fact that his wife can never have another baby and that he must not engage in connubial relations with her, and Carter hardly able to feel properly about his wife as a partner at all, because he is (to give him some credit) as tortured as she is in their mutually hellish life of adultery, alcohol and drug abuse, and feverish party-going.

The most essential way in which these two heroines are alike is in the fact that both live their lives mainly as adjuncts to their husbands’ lives, and this is the part which ends up tripping them up.  Margaret is typing handmaid to Andrew, who fancies himself a great public man and a keen scientific mind, and who ends up becoming a bit delusional and given to fits of mistaken grandeur.  Her attention to his belief that everyone wants to hear everything he has to say, and that in print, is in addition to her dutiful practice of the tenets of housewifery of the time, the cooking, cleaning, and management of the household.  Maria’s way of being an adjunct to her husband’s life is to star in minor pictures he makes, to trail along after him through his life of partying and so forth, even though they are estranged and thinking of divorce and he cheats on her and she on him in a casual way, and allowing him to dominate her in the matter of their differences about how to deal with the daily life of a small child they already have, Kate, whom Carter put in a home because she suffers from some sort of developmental disability.

The two heroines are different in some respects.  Margaret is very practically oriented, and survives her life by taking care of ordinary matters, and using them as pegs upon which to hang her self-references.  Maria, on the other hand, takes sudden drives up and down the coast, to Las Vegas, and stays in bed all day on some days, or makes tiny and repeated futile attempts to reach out to someone among the disaffected and brazen denizens and hangers-on of her and Carter’s world.  Margaret makes purposeful friendships which help to see her through the days and nights, with Dora (a woman reporter who reads like a portrait of Willa Cather), Pete (a mysterious and charming Russian adventurer), and Naoko Kimura and her family, Japanese citizens of the United States who later suffer being sent to detention centers during WW II.  Furthermore, she maintains the socially expected contacts with her landlady at a boarding house she once stayed in during her confinement and with neighbors and friends of her husband’s.  Her revolution, though it comes at the end, is extremely slow in coming.  Maria, on the other hand, is often dismissive of her husband’s and her own friends, because actually she feels so taut and miserable all the time that they bring her no relief, though she does spend some time with them.  She is described by one reviewer, the blurb writer, as “catatonic,” and this, though not true in the technical sense, is true in the metaphorical sense:  she can’t seem to effect change in any measurable way until the end.

Perhaps the main difference in them, however, is that in the end Margaret sets aside all the anxiety and care and trouble she’s taken over her husband and his books, and decides to write her own book, whereas Maria makes a suicide attempt which results in Carter placing her too (like her daughter Kate) in some kind of facility.  But the difference isn’t perhaps as much as it might seem:  though Maria’s solution is seemingly more self-destructive, Margaret’s choice is also destructive of the self she has always maintained, the dutiful wife and friend.    When her friend Pete (and love interest) leaves town, she angrily does something she’s never done before and throws one of her husband’s thick and self-important letters into the back yard unread, to get wet in the rain and the dew.  And she thinks to herself, “I have…no reason to be alive.”  But far from actually causing her to kill herself, this thought gives her pleasure because it so contravenes what she knows are her husband’s beliefs.  The main similarity is that finally both choose not to continue to follow in their husbands’ wake, but to call attention to themselves and their own needs, apart from the expected course of having a nuclear family as it appears in Private Life and the disapppointed ideal of Maria’s of the nuclear family model as it occurs in Play It As It Lays.  Maria calls attention to herself by making an attempt on her own life, Margaret by electing to write a book of her own.  How many heroines in how many novels and stories have we seen driven towards one or other of these extremes in order to survive as a woman in society?  I don’t think I need to emphasize the point further.

What’s perhaps most intriguing is that near the end of both novels, the two heroines each state a sort of philosophy or guiding principle.  As Margaret finally realizes and says to herself with some bitterness (able at last to bring to recall a long-lost memory from her childhood because she can now face the truth), “There are so many things that I should have dared before this.”  In a similarly memory-oriented fashion, Maria thinks to herself near the end of Didion’s novel, “When I was ten years old my father taught me to assess quite rapidly the shifting probabilities on a craps layout:  I could trace a layout in my sleep….Always when I play back my father’s voice is it with a professional rasp, it goes as it lays, don’t do it the hard way.  My father advised me that life itself was a crap game:  it was one of the two lessons I learned as a child.  The other was that overturning a rock was apt to reveal a rattlesnake.  As lessons go those two seem to hold up, but not to apply.”  In a sense, though one woman is actively planning an overthrow of her husband’s dominance by imitating his way with the world (appearing in print), and the other is biding her time (perhaps delusively) in a care facility and planning sometime in the future to live alone with just her daughter, Kate, they each have plans.  And to each, the marriage she has endured with some difficulty has become a metaphor for all of life, which shows how overwhelming to each the experience has been.

To many people, even some well-intentioned and fervent feminists, now as in the earlier days of the women’s movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the slogan “The personal is political” has seemed a trifle humorless and grim, engendering nightmarish visions and imaginations of constant negotiations in the bedroom, the boardroom, and in all facets of daily life.  It is only when we un-demonize the word “political” (hard as that is sometimes, given the shenanigans we see career politicians getting up to) that we realize that human existence is a perpetual matter of negotiation and compromise anyway, and that to admit women into the ranks of those allowed to participate was never a matter of choice, but was always a matter of moral necessity, long though it took to happen.  But if you would sweeten the pill a little, then why not have a look at these two excellent novels, Jane Smiley’s a slow-developing long-reading picture of a lifetime lived with the “intimate enemy,” and Joan Didion’s a tough, glaring, burning endictment of a decadent lifestyle lived under the Western sun, without relief in sight?  You will perhaps find that even the portrayal of pain and frustration has its aesthetic parameters and pleasures in the hands of masters.

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The Learning Curve of Life and Death–Richard Gilbert’s fine memoir “Shepherd”

Today, I am sitting inside a comfortable beachside  condo, enjoying a precious tea that a Russian friend kindly provided me with, taking in both its nearly indescribable aroma and its delicate perfumed taste.  It’s a Basilur family tea imported from Sri Lanka, flavored with “natural cornflower, jasmine buds, blue malva, and flavor roasted almond.”  The whiff seems at first to be that of an expensive chocolate, and then one thinks “No, not chocolate exactly–what is that delicious smell?”  I have had the luxury of consuming the tea not only as a wonderful gift, but as something I didn’t have to question or think about much, except that I do sometimes after having a tea from Sri Lanka wonder about how they ever got their crops back in order after that frightful tsunami a number of years ago.

I’ve usually had lamb in the same way, especially enjoying having it with my brother, because he appreciates the visceral element in eating meat from the bone, possibly a holdover from our more carnivorous forebears, but when you see the two of us nibbling along the bones held aloft at a private family dinner (one where our company can’t judge us savages), you know we must be kin.  And as I say, I’ve not usually given a thought to where the sheep come from, how they are raised, how deprived of life, not much in fact beyond what cut I’m eating and how much it costs.  A standard consumer, then.  And this in spite of the fact that we are only two generations away from Appalachian small-time farmers ourselves on our father’s side, though I don’t think they had sheep.

Since I’m trying to be as honest as the book I’m reviewing today is, I will confess that my word picture of the tea above is an attempt to make tea lovers (at least) salivate and want to know more.  And it’s the very word pictures of the Appalachian countryside, scattered from beginning to end of Richard Gilbert’s book Shepherd, the gorgeous imagery and word poetry which demonstrate not only his love itself of the land, his accomodation to its demands that change with where it’s located in the country, but which also in a literary manner justify that love and draw in the eager reader for more.  There is a price to be paid, of course, and that is the price of empathizing with both sheep and shepherd as they suffer as well as glory in life; still, the book itself is true as true can be to living especially in this sense:  despite the pain endured and the trials encountered, one can imagine few who would rather go without it.

A general statement from a little past the middle of the book itself which expresses the author’s feel for his subject is this home truth:  “Something is always going awry, getting out of control, and otherwise cheating one’s fantasies on a farm.”  This might almost be juxtaposed with the statement of a friendly elderly neighbor from another section of the memoir, from a time when the author lived in Bloomington, Indiana in a more residential community before the farm in Athens, Ohio was even thought of except as a remote dream:  “You’re happier than you know.”  Yet, as one reads forward in the book but back and forth in time in the memoir structure of past juxtaposed to present and then retroactively again, one sees a man and his family going through a much-desired learning experience.  One begins to appreciate that it’s the price in lives and lifetime which gives one the right to speak in tropes and epigrams, which are scattered throughout the book, both from the author’s own words and those of the many farmers and breeders whom he acknowledges as his teachers.

One famous epigram I can recall from our own neck of the Appalachian countryside, and which I also found when I went to college for the first time at a school that was located in the midst of an agrarian community, was this punning one:  one seems to praise someone by saying “He’s outstanding in his field,” but a sly grin changes this into “He’s out standing in his field,” idly, of course, not a desirable condition for a farmer or an academic.  And Richard Gilbert has worn many hats during his lifetime, among others those of both an academic and a sheep farmer, while keeping his sense of humor and his modesty intact as if he were constantly mindful of this very epigram.  I first encountered him as a blogger not too long after I signed onto my own site in summer of 2012, and I’ve read his many excellent posts on narrative, memoir and memoir writers, teaching creative non-fiction to students, music, featured guest bloggers, and more (see Richard Gilbert).  And this summer, I was finally able to read his memoir Shepherd, which I recommend not just for anyone who has an interest in farming or raising livestock, but for those with a sincere interest in memoir or even narrative fiction:  the whole aggravated question of pacing, whether of restraining oneself when one desperately wants to go ahead with a treasured project or of knowing how to pace a memoir or fiction and make it suspenseful and fulfilling and true-to-life is at stake, and Richard Gilbert satisfies, even though he himself is constantly questioning and re-evaluating his own motives.

Like Socrates, the wise man knows only that he knows not, and Gilbert allows us to follow him along in his path across the farming scene, and lets us watch him make mistakes, celebrate successes, and confront the long learning curve of life and death that attends upon even the canniest farmer.  He shows us himself in his most soul-searching, depressed, angry, and perhaps even unjust moments, a man willing to learn and seeking answers. He asks at one point, “Was I really just starting to see, so late, that having strong feelings didn’t make me special?  That they certainly didn’t make me good?”  Again and again, he evaluates himself (even to his genetic inheritance of a weak back) against his father’s plans, disabilities, desires, and accomplishments, and those of other farmers he knows.  He describes his struggle to fit into an agrarian community that has its own traditions, suspicions, and ways of doing things, the most innocuous of which perhaps is what he calls “Appalachian Zen”: his friend and employee Sam’s advice to get to work, “Let’s do something even if it is wrong.”  And of his imitation of his father, he finally concludes, after a visionary dream which comes to him near the end of his farming venture, “I’ve never seen that while I tried to emulate him, I also tried to outdo him.”

His farming wisdom and advice?  As he says, “Many of my breeding-stock customers had [a] broader perspective from the beginning.  They didn’t aim to make money.  They came to farming seeking aesthetic pleasure and solace from an angry world.  And a word had arisen to honor food produced with less control but more craft:  artisanal.  The goal wasn’t high production per acre, but food infused with love and time.  Like art….For the highest quality, nothing beats small, slow, and inefficient.”

His philosophy?  His philosophy is not of the cut-and-dried kind which can be communicated in one heartbeat, but of that learning curve, there is certainly at least one wise lesson to be taken in by all of us, and it can be found by tracing an arc from his first sentence (“Childhood dreams cast long shadows into a life”) through to the very last paragraph of his book, when he describes a “sacred moment” which comes back to him as he gets ready to depart his sheep farm for yet another home elsewhere.  He remembers his Georgia boyhood on a farm, when he was four or five and was surrounded on a hillside by butterflies which “infuse[d] me with wonder and joy.  Because I’m so young, I can’t name, but only receive, their gift:  a revelation of life’s unfolding daily abundance:  a miracle.”  And in that word “miracle” is after all the solution to the vexed question of the learning curve of life and death, given us by an articulate, gifted, and knowledgeable memoirist who, while not mincing words about the negatives, avers that they are only the other side of the positives we prefer to see.  But this is to anticipate the reader’s travels with Gilbert, which must be experienced as a whole and followed from beginning to end to fully appreciate such a grand American adventure, and to place the right value on such an inestimable gift to the reading community.  Though it may not lead you to adopt a lamb, it will certainly lead you to ponder, laugh, cry, and dream dreams with at least one academic who has earned his agrarian stripes, and that human shepherd is Richard Gilbert.


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

The Dismantling and Reassembling of an Author’s Reputation–Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Jane Austen Book Club”

Once again, I had decided to read a book I was somewhat skeptical about because of all the hype it had received, and also because when a book has been made into a movie (as I understand this one has been) one has also the dual task, if possible, of being responsible for a comparison of the two, and I haven’t seen the movie.  But to forge on ahead–this book is not at all what I expected from what I had heard.  I had expected a sort of latter day imitation of Jane Austen’s world, in which (from what I had heard) the characters reading Jane Austen would begin to enact their own interior dramas and have relationships like those in an Austen novel, and would have happy or at least deserved endings, and then (as happens these days) there would be a reader’s guide to glance through for things I might want to think about, and then the book would be over.  A “good read,” but nothing spectacular, no fireworks, just a calm, if poignant, reminder of “our Jane” and her achievements.  A good read, be it understood, in the same way that Austen is a “good read,” requiring one’s wits for the piercing turn of phrase and one’s contemporary awareness that even Jane had her limits, mainly those of no longer achieving a sort of sexual politics we can nowadays feel comfortable with.  After all, marriage is no longer the only game in town.

But this book refused to cooperate with attempts to dismiss it (and I’m not sure now why I was trying to be so lazy), at the same time as it didn’t seem that well done, I couldn’t think why.  Perhaps it was because I was expecting a holistic experience, a standard “fourth wall realism” novel, in which (to borrow the term “fourth wall realism” from theater arts) the audience is allowed to maintain its fiction that it is looking at reality.  It’s not that The Jane Austen Book Club had any strange events, particularly, or departed from what we know of earth as described by basic biological tenets:  it was rather that the structure of the book itself bore a strange resemblance to something that had been dismantled and left on the floor or table in a partial state of reassembly.

True, there were six main characters in the book club, each of whom had a story in which they predominantly figured, and a book each which they were responsible for discussing of the six major works of Jane Austen featured in their discussions.  And, there were subsidiary characters who impinged upon their awareness and the plot itself.  But the six chapters of the months of the year during which they met, and the extra seventh chapter, and all the additional material included with the novel itself was a little confusing (the book had not a few odd pages of added random information stuck in here and there, and a strange editorial “we” narrative voice, apparently not representing any of the named characters, who spoke up now and then).  More and more as the novel went on, it bore the character not of a “fourth wall realistic” novel, which was what I had been expecting from the hype, but of a shattered experience known rather to the postmodern novel, with its characteristic disorientation of the reader and the reader’s presuppositions.

In truth, though I was a little bored with the novel proper, I found the overall tribute to Jane Austen to be quite valid and valuable and interesting.  And I don’t say I was bored because it was postmodern in its structure, but because the characters, along with the subsidiary characters who impinged upon their lives, added no real “flow” to the book.  It was largely a novel in which each character was briefly sketched, given some lines to say, and made to move toward some other character in the book.  The most significant sentence in the entire book occurs near the end of the novel:  it says, in the mysterious editorial voice (none of the named characters), “We’d let Austen into our lives, and now we were all either married or dating.”  This is presumably the “sop to Cereberus” of an Austen-like result that is meant to conclude the “business” of the tribute in the somewhat scattered pieces of the story line.  The after-material is another case, however.

I found that I was easily more interested in the editorial job Fowler had done with the Austen legacy and its documents than I was with the novel itself.  At the end of the novel, there is a “Reader’s Guide” (a brief and highly significant quoted paragraph); a quick run-down of the plots of Austen called “The Novels” (apparently intended to supply acquaintance and encouragement for those who haven’t read Austen yet); a section called “The Response,” which I easily found the most intriguing, composed of reactions from Austen’s contemporaries and family members and followed by those of famous writers and critics since; and then the inevitable “Questions for Discussion” and an index of “Acknowledgements.”  Once I had made my way through this material, I “saw [the book] steadily and saw [it] whole,” and this allowed a reassembling in my own mind of what I think Fowler’s purpose must have been:  I think it was largely an educational one, and though I don’t think the quality of the novel stands up to the quality of the overall project, I am glad I read the book, and can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, though I have expressed various reservations.

My suggestion to readers is this:  if you are a new reader of Jane Austen, read at least one Austen of your choice before you read this book.  Asking other Austen readers for a recommendation as to which one can be a frustrating task, because it seems that each novel has its own cadre of readers.  Maybe looking at Fowler’s section entitled “The Novels” will help you choose.  After reading the Austen novel, then read Fowler’s novel from beginning to end, for the purpose of comparing how a latter-day admirer of Austen may write, though I don’t think the two are comparable in quality (Fowler’s effort, though perhaps more familiar in its structure to our contemporary scene, seems a little thin and slapdash by comparison with Austen, and in having made her novel referential, Fowler has invited the comparison).  Lastly, and perhaps side-by-side with reading other Austen novels, read the rest of the whole of Fowler’s fine attempt to interest readers in the author whom she so obviously admires, and especially read “The Response” section:  everyone, it seems, has an opinion of Austen, and some differ widely (or wildly).  My guess is that all-in-all, you will come away with a similar affection for Jane Austen, and a debt of gratitude to Karen Joy Fowler, for having put your feet on the Austen reading path to start out with.


Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

Arturo Perez-Reverte’s “Purity of Blood”–A swashbuckling fiction romancing about a lie

After having read Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s exciting and tumultuous novel The Club Dumas some time ago (it is a free-standing novel at this point, not a part of a series), I made up my mind that his other novels, all apparently written in the great tradition of the adventurous Dumas, must certainly be worth a read too.  What with one thing and another, however, I got distracted by other books and literary endeavors, and until I found a copy of his second Captain Alatriste novel, Purity of Blood, on a free shelf at the library, I blush to confess that I had more or less put the great romancer Pérez-Reverte out of my mind.

At first, I hesitated to read the book right away, because usually I am a stickler for doing things in a certain order, and I felt that unless I had already acquired or at least read his first eponymous novel in the series, Captain Alatriste, that I should not go on to the second.  But then, a friend assured me that the novels were linked mainly by internal references back and forth to the adventures in each, and each book was still easily readable as a stand-alone experience.  So in I leapt.  At first, I felt that I was drowning in a sea of Spanish names as Pérez-Reverte built up his world of characters, and I do not know enough Spanish history to be sure, but I suspect that some of the characters in the novel are references to actual poets, con men, and adventurers (other than the king and queen, who appear in cameo fashion, and are of course meant to refer to the real people).

The story is handled very well, and is related by a thirteen-year-old ward of sorts of Captain Alatriste, Íñigo Balboa, in turn with an anonymous omniscient narrator who tells things that happen in Balboa’s absence which he could only know about by being told about them afterwards (which we are free to think is the case if we want).  The story flows easily, but the narrative waters are constantly perturbed by the concept of “blood,” both in the amount of it that is (or is in danger of being) shed in petty quarrels and scrapes, and in the troubled history of Spain’s Inquisition period, when the concept of “pure blood” (a descent unmarked by having Jewish or Moorish “blood”) was supreme.  I say the concept was supreme, because as the narrator relates from a later period than his thirteen-year-old perspective–and it’s a point made gracefully and well by the rhetoric of events as well as by any rhetoric of declamation, which is kept at a minimum–the concept was all there actually was.  As is reiterated by what the characters know already as well as by what they find out, there is no such thing in their world as “pure blood” of any group or category (and our world has already confronted this truth again and again in history, enough to be equally sure, though there are those slow to admit this, and even violently inclined to aver the opposite).  People are people, we are all related through Adam and Eve (or through whatever “Ur” figures one chooses to prefer), and any claim to the contrary is a lie.

Romancing about the confrontation of the lie, however, adds another dimension to the dialogue.  For example, Pérez-Reverte does not make his positive characters earnest and totally well-intentioned purveyors of the truth, but erstwhile adventurers, scandalous poets, and scoundrels, all of whom have their own reasons for seeking the truth.  They are pitted against the evil characters mainly because they are sickened by hypocrisy and have other axes to grind, old grudges and claims and quarrels, and they even have some prejudices of their own against disadvantaged groups, though they do not make victims of these groups.  The strongest rhetorical ploy they use which features the question of blood descent in fact comes about because a young nun of Jewish ancestry and the young man, Íñigo Balboa, are in the clutches of the Inquisition, and they must find a way to free them.  The very fact that they are not high-flown ministers of justice and the truth but only ordinary culprits and swashbuckling adventurers of men who make use of the truth and come to think the better of the truth in spite of their own prejudices is more convincing in some fictional ways than if they had had totally good intentions themselves to start with.

Finally, there is the rhetoric of the book which cleverly allows the reader not only to participate in a vigorous and page-turning tale of derring-do, but also to feel superior to those benighted characters who persist in their errors to their own undoing.  That not all can be saved who should be and not all adequately punished who deserve it is an element of realism which Pérez-Reverte allows to creep into the novel; still, this one realistic gesture makes the otherwise a little fantastic fiction breathe life, and reinforces our awareness of just how unreal the world can become in actual fact when people allow a corrupt idea to lead them into action, and when they make victims of their fellow human beings according to a notion of division and superiority.

I have, of course, written some very serious words about this novel, as I think it deserves, but of course, another good reason to read it is because, quite simply, it’s fun, gripping, and full of wit and wizardry of blade and dagger.  After all, it’s not every day our serious lessons about life are accompanied by a generous dose of fantasy and play with history and historical figures.  And who better to deliver this combination than Arturo Pérez-Reverte?


Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

Yusuf Idris’s “The Chair Carrier”–Symbolic double entendres from sentence to sentence

First, let me apologize for having been away for so long from posting.  I went away to a lovely lake, Lake Champlain, for the July 4th holiday, and some of me didn’t come back right away (mainly, my heart, which is in love with lakeshore trees and breezes in green leaves, and widely various birdsong in the forest, and good times with family and friends).  But I’m ready now to re-enter my daily life, and today’s post is on a short story of Yusuf Idris, a writing physician from Egypt.  The story is called “The Chair Carrier.”  This story, in fact, shows what the whole necessity for revolution and change in society is about, and it does so at the sentence level, symbolically.

Basically, the story is a sort of surreal one, and here is how it begins:  “You can believe it or not, but excuse me for saying that I saw him, met him, talked to him and observed the chair with my own eyes.  Thus I considered that I had been witness to a miracle.  But even more miraculous–indeed more disastrous–was that neither the man, the chair, nor the incident caused a single passer-by in Opera Square, in Gumhourriyya Street, or in Cairo–or maybe in the whole world–to come to a stop at that moment.”

The entire story is taken up with the speaker, a literate and prosperous person, trying to persuade the unread unfortunate chair carrier to lay his burden down (he has apparently been carrying that identical chair since before the time of the Pyramids, in search of the man whom he is to receive permission to put his burden aside from, “Uncle Ptah Ra”).  Already here, we have a sort of symbolic double entendre (but of the political and not the sexual kind)–the chair carrier is the same primitive man, unable to read or write, who has been around since time immemorial, the serf or slave of the more fortunate, bowing to their customs and insistences, respecting their whims.

Then, the speaker asks the man what he will do if he cannot find the man he seeks, only to find that he will continue to carry the chair, because it’s been “deposited in trust” with him.  The narrator tells us:  “Perhaps it was anger that made me say:  ‘Put it down.  Aren’t you fed up, man?  Aren’t you tired?  Throw it away, break it up, burn it.  Chairs are made to carry people, not for people to carry them.’  ‘I can’t.  Do you think I’m carrying it for fun?  I’m carrying it because that’s the way I earn my living.’….”  Even when the narrator assures the chair carrier that Uncle Ptah Ra is dead long ago, the chair carrier, in another symbolic passage, which is meant to show the nature of serfdom and servility and sheer desperation to be able to support oneself somehow, indicates that he cannot put it down with a “token of authorization” from “his successor, his deputy, from one of his descendants, from anyone with a token of authorization from him.”

Even an outright command from the narrator, who is certainly of higher status, will not persuade the chair carrier that he has permission to put the chair down.  Then, suddenly the narrator notices “something that looked like an announcement or sign fixed to the front of the chair.  In actual fact, it was a piece of gazelle-hide with ancient writing on it, looking as though it was from the earliest copies of the Revealed Books.”  As it turns out, the writing says, “O chair carrier,/You have carried enough/And the time has come for you to be carried in a chair./This great chair,/The like of which has not been made,/Is for you alone./Carry it/And take it to your home./Put it in the place of honor/And seat yourself upon it your whole life long./And when you die./It shall belong to your sons.”  This too is highly symbolic, because of course any one individual chair carrier would in reality have been dead after one lifetime anyway, but this chair and this chair carrier symbolize something and someone forever a part of the human scene.  Note also that the poetry says that the chair is that “the like of which has not been made,” which seems to contradict the spirit of the rest of the lines, as if it could never happen.

When the narrator reads off this poetic scripture to the chair carrier, the narrator feels joy that at last his interlocutor can put down the chair, because initially overlooked by both of them, this sign gives the necessary permission without which the chair carrier refuses to do other than carry the chair.  But the narrator is unable to persuade the man, because as the chair carrier says of himself, he cannot read and does not therefore know for a fact that that is what the sign says:  he has no “token of authorization,” and can only accept the reading the narrator has done for him if the narrator has such a token.  The chair carrier becomes angry and says, “All I get from you people is obstruction.  Man, it’s a heavy load and the day’s scarcely long enough for making just the one round.”  He moves off, and leaves the perplexed narrator asking himself confused and bitter questions:

“I stood there at a loss, asking myself whether I shouldn’t catch him up and kill him and thus give vent to my exasperation.  Should I rush forward and topple the chair forcibly from his shoulders and make him take a rest?  Or should I content myself with the sensation of enraged irritation I had for him?  Or should I calm down and feel sorry for him?  Or should I blame myself for not knowing what the token of authorization was?”  In this series of questions, one can perceive a gradually diminishing element of violence and hostility, until finally the narrator turns the questions in toward himself, and supposes that he himself is ignorant or lacks a certain kind of understanding.  These questions in fact symbolically represent the different tactics human often take toward those less fortunate than themselves, those who are forced to live by different rules until at last they often accept their sorrowful lot and think that there is no other possible way for them to exist.  Here, the better educated and more fortunate narrator sounds to the chair carrier almost like an agent provocateur, with his suggestions which do not fit within the framework of possibilities that are allowable to the chair carrier.

Yusuf Idris, the author of this remarkable story, worked as a government health inspector in some of the poorest sections of Cairo.  This affected his social and political views, and gained him an audience for his works, while causing him also to be imprisoned a number of times.  He was finally able to leave medicine due to his popularity and concentrate solely on his writings.  What does not perhaps come across in translation (which has been done in this version by Denys Johnson-Davies) is the way in which Idris used spoken language in his compositions, producing his own individual style.  Though the story above is so entirely symbolic and speaks of a long history of oppressive regimes in the world, one can almost imagine the concerned government health inspector here in dialogue with one of his poorest patients, trying to persuade him to act for his health and set his burden aside for a time.  And while the chair carrier’s response is certainly grounds for pessimism, something which the narrator noted at the beginning as “disastrous” is the fact that the little scene provoked no response at all from those surrounding them in the street.  This suggests the reaction Idris wants us as readers to have, possibly, and seems to indicate that our role is at least to be witnesses, and concerned witnesses as that, if we are not strong and capable enough to be changers of the scene.  For, enough witnesses to an injustice can eventually provoke change, and after all is said and done, this clever and very short short story is made to be a witness’s statement, and to cause change in at least our perceptions, which is of course the first step to enacting justice.


Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, What is literature for?