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An Ironic Look at the Process of Inspiration–“The Formula”

It’s been a little more than a week now since I’ve had the opportunity to put up another poem of my own, and while I understand that one can’t always be inspired to work on specific things or in specific ways, there’s still that sense of frustration that arises when a “dry spell” occurs.  So, I decided to write a poem about that; one gets one’s topics where one can, after all!

The Formula

"Sit and think for a bit,
It'll come to you;
It always has before,
Why should now be any different?"
And yet, now is now
And then was then,
And poetry
Is not made to order.
Unresponsive to logic
Even in its most rhetorical form,
It follows a line and melody
All its own,
Declines to be summoned
Except with most respect;
Stays only to hear
Its own self speak,
Though it insists on
Not being thought
A pompous twit, a prig,
But a voice from a heavenly aether,
Or a cloud.
What a put-up job!
Attributing itself
To a series of unknowables
Or unmeasurables, in the course of things,
Like muses, twilit nights, the moon,
Sorrows, radiant sunshine,
Genius or capacity for self-deception,
Anyway--
Really, what has ever been
More uncompromising than poetry?
More querulous, hard to please,
Stubborn, self-dramatic,
Quick to anger,
Slow to compromise,
And all-in-all
Difficult to compose
And call one's own?
Yet, I suppose
If I wait for just a bit,
Give it a chance to seem humble
As if dropping in on me unawares,
Uninvited and unheralded,
Then I won't have to threaten it
With becoming prosy,
With writing a short story instead.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 2/28/17

Who knows if I will be able to continue poetry posts in the near future?  Yet I couldn’t resist sharing this wry expression of frustration at an at least mild case of writer’s block.  Shadowoperator

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What’s out there? A Poem About “It”–“What Is It”?

This is just a short poem, made more to start to investigate a compositional problem than to propose a final answer, though the ending might seem final.  I’ve found that I often end a poem with a reference to God, and though in each case the reference was sincere and thought out, I don’t want it to get to be too easy and automatic, because that’s not what faith is about.  So, I’m sort of thinking now about what it means to turn at least to the Infinite for explanations of things, even if you don’t believe in a specific god or gods or goddesses.  This brief ditty–and really, it can’t be called more than that–was the result.  Not one of my best poems, but useful, at any rate.

What Is It?

What is that something out there
That other folk deny
Is it the being I call "God"
Or is it just "I'm I"?
For Popeye with his spinach
And God, out of iams,
The both of them are known to say
Just "I am what I am."
And though the foot and rhyme are true
I fear I have to say
That other people doubt me more
Because I "God" display
In many poems; in many rhymes
"God" seems the answer true
For what I simply can't explain,
With mystery endued.
And I find often it helps me
To think someone's in charge
Though even I dispute results
Which in my life loom large.
So leave me my illusions,
Let me think amorphously
That I perceive a bit of truth
And that it perceives me.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 2/3/17

Though I’ve had this problem particularly  this time round this year in writing poetry, I always wrote around it before when I was younger, because people seemed to disapprove so very much of the idea of God, and they were and are people I respect for their other qualities and abilities, certainly many of them intellectual.  But now, I’ve come to a time in my life which is sufficiently trying and difficult (though it was so before as well) that it makes me feel better to let the truth of my feelings out, be damned and full speed ahead!  I hope, though, that whatever your own beliefs, you feel welcome to express them with people who care about you, or just with people you know–it’s hard to feel that you can’t express freely what you truly feel, whatever that may be.  Shadowoperator

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C. S. Lewis’s (Lack of) Sympathy for the Devil: “The Screwtape Letters” and “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”

Recently, I was watching an episode of “Inspector Lewis” on PBS television, and in the famous mystery series, Inspector Lewis and Inspector Hathaway were investigating murders of some people who were either followers of “The Inklings” (J. R.. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and C. S. Lewis), or of medieval alchemy, it took them some time to discover which.  Some of the details about The Inklings in this generally well-researched series made me curious, but while I was conversant with the other two, I had never heard of Charles Williams the literary figure before.  So, I dug out the only book I’d ever had by C. S. Lewis (excepting a childhood’s version of The Chronicles of Narnia), a copy of The Screwtape Letters which also included a short piece called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.”  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the primary work, its subtitle is “How a Senior Devil Instructs a Junior Devil in the Art of Temptation.”

One of the most curious things about this book is the way in which it conveys serious moral philosophy without, however, verging either into the preachy or the satirical in a pure sense.  It examines moral issues relating to humanity, a Christian version of God, and the wages of sin in a topsy-turvy way through Screwtape’s earnest and falsely urbane written advice to his nephew, Wormwood, who is trying to tempt a young man to fall from grace.  The book traces each step (or misstep) Wormwood makes through the lessons Screwtape is apparently offering his nephew, while the nephew’s letters to Screwtape, soliciting this advice, are suppressed by the book’s creator.

In his “Preface,” C. S. Lewis says, “The commonest question is whether I really ‘believe in the Devil.’  Now, if by ‘the Devil’ you mean a power opposite to God and, like God, self-existent from all eternity, the answer is certainly No.  There is no uncreated being except God.  God has no opposite.  No being could attain a ‘perfect badness’ opposite to the perfect goodness of God; for when you have taken away every kind of good thing (intelligence, will, memory, energy, and existence itself) there would be none of him left.  The proper question is whether I believe in devils.  I do.  That is to say, I believe in angels, and I believe that some of these, by the abuse of their free will, have become enemies to God and, as a corollary, to us.  These we may call devils.  They do not differ in nature from good angels, but their nature is depraved.  Devil is the opposite of angel only as Bad Man is the opposite of Good Man.  Satan, the leader or dictator of devils, is the opposite, not of God, but of Michael….It should be (but it is not) unnecessary to add that a belief in angels, whether good or evil, does not mean a belief in either as they are represented in art and literature.  Devils are depicted with bats’ wings and good angels with birds’ wings, not because anyone holds that moral deterioration would be likely to turn feathers into membrane, but because most men like birds better than bats.”

Lewis further explains two other choices of his creation of characters, the first to give his devils no real sense of humor (“For humor involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside.”), and the second to make his devils bureaucrats and their subordinates (“I like bats much better than bureaucrats.  I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of ‘Admin.’  The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint.  It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps.  In those we see its final result.  But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men   with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.  Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”  He goes on to point out that the devils only have any kind of supposedly civilized concord with each other in a temporary sense.  When Wormwood finally fails, in this book, to tempt his subject to Hell when he dies, and instead sees him headed for Heaven, it’s his own uncle, Screwtape, who has been giving him devilish avuncular advice all this time, who rejoices the most (and literally salivates the most) at his downfall in Hell.

The shorter piece by Lewis, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” finds Screwtape the honorary speaker at the annual dinner for the Tempters’ Training College for young devils.  The piece has some quite pointed bits about what exactly they are dining upon. For example, they eat “a municipal authority with Graft sauce”; a “Casserole of Adulterers”; a “Trade Unionist stuffed with sedition”; and they drink “sound old vintage Pharisee.”  This piece is rather more politically than morally slanted, as herein C. S. Lewis takes aim at the ways in which he feels the principles of modern democracy and the annihilation of individuality are leading people from the straight and narrow to the wide broad highway of sin.  This work is not really as universal as the main text, but criticizes mainly what Lewis finds objectionable in the democratic society of his own time.  This is not to say that it’s not interesting to read, but there is a stronger Toryish flavor to it from what I can tell without having done further research beyond just reading the piece myself and judging from that (a true Britisher reading it might disagree, and might feel that Lewis’s objections are free of bias).

At any rate, I’m very glad to have read this book finally, having often wondered what lay between its covers.  Though more of a spiritual than a religious person myself (having been raised a Christian, but also having tried to extend my understanding in some degree at least to other religious systems as well), I found that Lewis’s was an innervating and and energetic point of view, and one well worth encountering, even at points where it seemed dated.  After all, you have to look for the virtues in any book you read, while trying to explain to yourself the faults and shortcomings.  It’s a position you would want people to approach your own work(s) with, and you as well.  Happy exploring in the literary world!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Case study, tribute, answer, or meditation?–Julian Barnes’s “The Sense of an Ending”

A month or so ago, I wrote a post on William Trevor’s book of short stories “After Rain,” and referenced in relation to it the fine scholar Frank Kermode’s critical work first published in 1967, The Sense of an Ending.  You may imagine my perplexity when I discovered on my library website a fairly new book, published in 2011, by Julian Barnes, a novel of sorts also called The Sense of an Ending.  My perplexity was mainly because at no point in the opening pages of the book and nowhere within is Frank Kermode given a nod for his work, except in the overall sense that it becomes overwhelmingly obvious by the end of the book that it is a sort of case study of, answer to, tribute to, or meditation upon Kermode’s work.  Perhaps it is all of these.  At any event, Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker prize and was nominated for other awards for this work, so Wikipedia’s confidence that the book is at least a “meditation” upon Kermode’s thesis seems well-founded, because the publicity attendant upon such fame would make it unlikely that the book could be seen otherwise.

To reiterate Frank Kermode’s notion, that humans, being uncomfortable with their short life span, have to imagine themselves as part of a historical curve of a sort of golden age in the past, to which their own lives are the present leading to an important future, is to deal with many imponderables, and yet it certainly makes sense in the way Barnes envisions it.  Barnes is in fact doing in a work which isn’t entirely novel-like what Kermode says critics must do:  whereas poets help to make sense of the way we see our lives, critics must help make sense of the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives.

The main character, the narrator, Tony Webster, tells a story in two parts in which he is engaged in the first part in telling about his younger years with his friends Alex, Colin, and Adrian, and his failed romance with Veronica (Mary), whose mother also comes into the story.  Later, Adrian writes to tell Tony that he and Veronica are now together, and Tony responds.  Then, Adrian commits suicide not long after another apparently less vital and virile classmate has done the same thing.  The remaining three friends engage in the same sort of philosophical speculation about why Adrian did it that they had shared as intellectually gifted students.  In the second part, we see Tony much later, as a retired man who has since been married to someone else, produced offspring, and been cordially divorced.  He is now reevaluating the earlier years because Veronica’s mother dies and leaves him a diary of Adrian’s; Veronica, however, is in between Tony and the bequest, and prevents him from a complete reading of the diary.  It is in dealing with her as someone who still parallels him in age that he questions himself and thinks about his past in a radically different way than he traditionally has.

“You get towards the end of life–no, not life itself, but of something else; the end of any likelihood of change in that life.  You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question:  what else have I done wrong?”  This is the almost casually stated thesis of Barnes’s work, not casual in the sense of its eventual importance, but in the way he slips it into the woof and weave of many other questions and ponderings about history and in particular personal histories.  For example, from his boyhood days, come memories of hilarity in the classroom at a dullard who, when asked what happened in a historical period of complexity, answers:  “There was unrest,” and when prodded to comment further, goes on to say, “There was great unrest, sir.”  Yet, this comment comes back with some significance to haunt Tony as an older man.  In the last paragraph of the book, he states, “There is accumulation.  There is responsibility.  And beyond these, there is unrest.  There is great unrest.”

That Barnes has pointed out time as one of his avowed subjects is clear from the first, when he says, “We live in time–It holds us and moulds us–but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.”  He elaborates, “ordinary everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly:  tick-tock, click-clock.  Is there anything more plausible than a second hand?  And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”  What is as malleable as time, apparently, or as a result of time, is memory, which lives in and changes with time, for Tony is suddenly shocked by a picture of his younger self in a letter which Veronica does return to him with a few of the diary pages before burning the rest.

And yet there is further shock to come–I will not ruin the surprise near the end of the book, for though this is a serious literary endeavor and not a suspense novel, there is a twist near the end which underlines many of the points that Tony gradually becomes aware of as he re-thinks his earlier history.  Suffice it to say that the novel is a very good book in this reader’s opinion, and one well worth the Man Booker Prize.  And I like to think that Frank Kermode might find it a fitting tribute (case study? answer? meditation?) as well.

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A Title by Any Other Name– Patrick Ness’s “The Rest of Us Just Live Here”

As YA fiction is not my forte, this will be a shorter post than most, and will probably just whet your appetite, or at least I hope so.  I do occasionally read YA things, and I have to say that until I actually started this one, I was expecting something completely different.  I mean, the very intriguing title, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, suggested to me a funny, smart, ironic modern book, with quips and quirks and characters to illustrate the unexpected turns and twists of life.  I didn’t get quite that, but the book is a valuable lesson in appreciating the unexpected, whether you are a reader or a character.

There are two different story lines in the book, one concerning a group of teenaged seniors in their final year in high school, who are suffering from various everyday traumas of growing up, from insecurity to anorexia, to coping with romantic problems.  And then, of course, as later emerges, there’s the one of them who’s coping with being one-fourth Immortal (the God of Cats, a nice choice to my cat-loving imagination).  The second story line, which appears in a short paragraph at the beginning of each chapter and which seems at first to have nothing much to do with the other more usual set of circumstances in the main plot line, concerns the dramatic supernatural misadventures of another group of students whom the first group call “the indie kids,” apparently kids like those one might see in B-list indie horror and suspense films.  All the main deaths happen to them, and while the more “normal” kids discuss the events when they become aware of them, they don’t actually aid or intervene in the indie kids’ affairs until the very end of the novel.  So, one assumes, the title “the rest of us just live here” is a sort of smart-ass rejoinder to the screenwriters who put so many unfortunate and adventurous teens in their films, a sort of denial that everything is fated to happen to people of that age.

In fact, the short paragraph at the beginning of each chapter which briefly summarizes what is happening to the indie kids is so brief and flatly stated that it reads like parody, and its back and forth between marauding Immortals and hapless indie kids would be a mere summary of some lost novel with no real believable interest, except for the union between the two groups of teens which comes about at the end, when they all graduate.  At that point, the threads of plot are all wound up, though new beginnings are also clearly in the offing, uncertain though the future is for all of them.  This is a fairly good growing-up novel, though the voice could use a little work, because the narrator comes across as a bit more mature than the usual high school senior, even one of superior intelligence and even one with OCD to cope with, his particular problem to sort out.

The counterpoint which is established between the illnesses and neuroses of the “normal” kids and the supernatural visitations upon the “indie” kids is actually quite nice and well-developed, by force of the fact that whereas in the ordinary supernatural book, the supernatural is a metaphor for the traumas of development into maturity and its attendant dangers, here the two are interwoven in a non-metaphorical way to show that “the rest of us” who “just live here” are not so immune from life-shattering events, even if they don’t view themselves as particularly dramatic.  There are also little flashes of humor here and there, both from the characters to each other and in such features as giving the one-fourth Immortal student dominion over cats.

There is an author’s note here as well, just as there was in the Duchovny book I reviewed last time, but this one is less self-oriented and more interesting, though the author’s references are also topical.  The book came about in connection with a Typhoon Haiyan fundraising effort, and we read that two of the character names, Henna’s and Jared’s, were taken from real people known to the author, who were a part of the fundraising history.  All in all, I think that though this is not Pulitzer Prize material, it’s a good book for the more mature teenager, not more mature in the sense of being able to withstand repeated doses of violence and horror without nightmares, but mature in the sense that he or she will be able to perceive the points the book is trying to make.  And that’s my post for today.

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The Shape Events Take in the Human Mind–William Trevor’s “After Rain”

Finally, I am back to blogging again, and it has been a long time since I could really call myself a regular blogger, several months in fact.  Therefore, I hope my readers will be patient with a very long post, to make up for all the time away.  Also, I need to issue spoiler alerts for the short stories in this volume, but since they are literary short stories and not suspense or mystery ones, but ones which a person might read again and again for their staying power and quality, I don’t feel so bad about that.  So here goes:

In his well-known short volume The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode said, “It is not expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives.”  To again quote and paraphrase Kermode, this critique is thus “at two removes” from life itself, and at one remove from “the meaning of the work.”  Humans, he indicates, are “uncomfortable with their own short life span, and they try to make sense of the beginning, middle, and end of history and histories,” seeing themselves in “a middle” which is particularly important to “a future.”

I find Kermode’s words particularly interesting in the evolving story pattern which develops in William Trevor’s collection of short stories, After Rain.  Even when the characters are near the end of their lives, as are the devoted husband and wife who are snubbed by their son at his birthday celebration in “Timothy’s Birthday” in the third story of the collection, there is no real compositional sense of resolution at hand outside of what characters think.  Characters markedly have trouble making sense in any sustained way of their facts and changes near the ends of their lives, or fail to do so, as does Eddie the “rough trade” character in the same story.  By contrast, they sometimes (especially as one gets farther into the book) create whole worlds of events to happen or which they surmise have happened.

In the first story (to go back a bit), “The Piano Tuner’s Wives,” the blind piano tuner accepts that his second wife may be lying to him about things his first beloved wife described to him in detail, in order to claim her own place at his side, but he doesn’t seem to feel any need to resolve the contradictions:  instead, he faces the remainder of his life with two different versions of reality as his compass.

The story “The Friendship” is anticlimactic at the end, which spells the end of a long friendship over what was a moment’s choice of deceit in the story.  The two friends merely separate, but the finality of it, though stated, is not emphasized at its otherwise preeminent and important place at the end of the story with anything like strong emotion.  It seems instead deliberately understated.  Though they separate for good, the emphasis is rather on the day as an ordinary day, which prefigures “A Day” later on.  Yet even though no one can foresee the future, the deceitful character tells herself that the other will mention their resolve to part later on, and even thinks she knows what the circumstances will be.

“Child’s Play” is a story in which two children, Gerard and Rebecca, are thrown together as playmates because two of their parents are cheating with each other.  There is a divorce, and a new family structure is formed.  The adults are never known by their own names, but in a reversal of their importance to themselves and the children’s minor positions are known only by appellations such as “Gerard’s father,” “Rebecca’s mother.”  The children play together by imitating the words and phrases they have heard the parents say, underlining the actual rockiness and irony of the children’s ability to possess them.  But even this pattern gets disrupted in the sudden impermanence that comes from the adults’ inability to behave well themselves in terms of their children’s interests.  The children’s game is broken, and with no future to it in sight.

“A Bit of Business” is a story in which two hoodlums, Mangan and Gallagher, are busy looting empty homes left empty while people go to see the Pope in Phoenix Park.  Mr. Livingston, an older man, is left by the Herlihys to mind their flat “while the Guards [are] all out at the park,” as they tell him.  He thinks that they really just wanted him to be able to watch the Pope on their television set, and so isn’t prepared for the two crooks when they break in on him; they are equally surprised to confront anyone at home.  But the rest of the story follows the action of the two burglars, who pick up a couple of girls, or “motts,” as they call them, and spend the day drinking and taking advantage of the girls’ only too willing favors.  The worst thing that happens to them this day at least is that at the end of it, the girls become insistent about seeing them again, which promise the men do not intend to keep.  The end of their day consists in each wondering how long it will be before Mr. Livingston gives an accurate description to the police, their individual regrets that they didn’t kill him while they had the chance, and their questions, each to himself, as to whether the ability to kill was acquired.  Their future, such as it is, is one in which they imagine themselves caught.

In “After Rain,” the scene taking place once the refreshment of rain is over doesn’t happen until the last sentence, which it is compared to a visual scene in the background of a painting of the Annunciation in the Church of Santa Fabiola, in a town in Italy where a young woman has gone after the death of a love relationship.  She stays in a pensione she visited when a child.  Going to the church and viewing the painting, the young woman thinks that it was intended to show a scene that happened after rain.  “The story of Santa Fabiola is lost in the shadows that were once the people of her life, the family tomb reeks odourlessly of death.  Rain has sweetened the breathless air, the angel comes mysteriously also.”  Thus, her past and her present and her future too are telescoped just as in the Annunciation the angel was both a vision to Mary of the future and a prefiguration of the Angel of Death.  Still, the angel’s coming mysteriously is the source of the title of the whole book of stories, for the entire collection has mysteries and predictions and truncated endings as its modus operandi.  The entire book falls under the rubric of death in terms of death of relationships, as in this story, and each story ends and yet most don’t really resolve.  Therefore, after the rain, though it may seem to clear the air, the mystery of the angel remains.

The story “Widows” is perhaps not so much about the death of a relationship or death itself as it is about the transformation of a relationship, just as the Tarot card “Death” signifies not actual death but change.  In this case, the relationship between two sisters is fated to change.  Catherine (a recent widow who was happy with her husband) and Alicia (a widow of many years, who had an unhappy marriage) live together, and in this composition have to deal with a dishonest odd-jobs man with the outsize (and inaccurate) name of Thomas Pius John Leary, who insists that the job done for them before Catherine’s husband died is not paid for.  This is a kind of fraud that he and his wife are likely to practice on a widow, but because she can’t find the receipt that proves her husband’s payment, Catherine eventually feels she has to pay.  He presses, by insisting that he has no copy of a receipt in his book.  Alicia, the stronger and older sister, wants to report Leary to the Guards for trying to run a confidence trick, but even though she always protected her sister in their youth, Catherine won’t allow it now because of a strange sort of pride and desire for privacy about her married life.  “….Catherine was paying money in case, somehow, the memory of her husband should be accidentally tarnished.”  The relationship between the sisters is conditioned in the present by the relationship each had with her husband:  Alicia’s husband was a disappointment, Catherine’s was a jewel of a gentleman.  Thus, Alicia cannot understand Catherine’s protectiveness towards her own husband’s memory.  But as Catherine realizes the morning before she goes to pay the undue debt, “[w]hile they were widows in her house Alicia’s jealousy would be the truth they shared….widows were widows first.  Catherine would mourn, find in solitude the warmth of love.  For Alicia there was the memory of her [own] beauty.”  This story too has no obvious ending, other than an implied one, but this makes it more complete than the stories which are placed before “After Rain” in the book.  Indeed, the stories featured after that pivotal title story all seem to have at least some implied ending if not a complete one.

Another aspect of family membership, motherhood in particular, appears in “Gilbert’s Mother.”  Rosalie Mannion, who is the “Gilbert’s mother” of the title, is in a story which is chilling for two (at least) different reasons:  the first is that if Gilbert is the serial miscreant being covered in at least one local news story, then he is too clever to be caught.  The second is that it’s his own mother who suspects him of being that person and her suspicion is parsed in a grammar of differences that she has noticed about him, at least in her own imagination, since he was two.  “It was always the News, on the radio or the television, that prompted her dread.  When a fire was said to have been started deliberately, or a child enticed, or broken glass discovered in baby-food jars in a supermarket, the dread began at once–the hasty calculations, the relief if time and geography ruled out involvement.”  The story is left unfinished in a sense, because even though there’s never any proof against Gilbert, the suggestion is that he controls his mother and makes himself the center of her life by manipulating her fears about him.  Yet, he is never arrested or accused of anything in any but his mother’s mind.  Inasmuch as there is the Biblical clause “and Mary pondered these things in her heart,” and the central story of this collection, “After Rain,” is connected with a painting of “The Annunciation,” so this story is the negative version of the Virgin Mary’s “ponderings.”  The destiny of a child, who can foresee or control it, even its mother?

“The Potato Dealer” is a tale in which yet another birth occurs, in which the unwed mother, Ellie, is married off to a much older potato dealer, Mulreavey, to hide her shame.  He is willing to take her for the sake of her uncle’s farm and lands, a deal made for the future.  While he doesn’t insist on his “conjugal rights,” Mulreavy does expect to inherit the farm from Mr. Larrissey, Ellie’s uncle.  When the baby, Mary Josephine, is born, Ellie remembers the real father, a visiting priest, but whereas she treasures the child for the sake of this real father’s memory, Mulreavey accepts the child out of greed, practicality, and even a small measure of affection.  Finally, though, when the child is ten, Ellie can no longer keep the father’s identity a secret, and tells the potato dealer he was a priest; her family is angry with her.  Then, that same evening, she tells the child.  The local priest is as angry with her for revealing the truth as he is with her for her original activity with the visiting priest.  In the end, the revelation doesn’t much affect the relationship between Mulreavy and Ellie.–So, what is the story’s point?  Interestingly enough, and obviously enough as well, I suppose, when viewed from the perspective of the child’s name (Mary Josephine, family names, “Joseph” being Mr. Larrissey’s first name), this is about a modern version of the Biblical story of Christ, with a priest (God’s representative) standing in the place of the Holy Dove.  The story is shot with many ironies, but most of all, it suggests human dimensions to the divine birth, dimensions that one can imagine in any time or any place.  Most of all, the events are like those of a storm which has been long coming, and thus again “after the rain” is a representational idea.

Events in Northern Ireland are in the forefront of “Lost Ground.”  Briefly, it is the tale of a Protestant boy who is slain by a member of his own family for saying that a woman who called herself St. Rosa kissed him with a holy kiss in his father’s apple orchard.  Before the bitter ending, however, the reactions of people on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic split are shown.  His brother-in-law, the Protestant minister, tells him to forget about it and not to mention it.  The Catholic priest tries to help him identify the woman as a known saint, assuming that she was actually a saint, but is privately resentful and angry because the appearance wasn’t to a Catholic.  His family gradually restricts his movements until he is confined to his room permanently, because he becomes convinced that he has to go from town to town and preach about her appearance to him.  Finally, when his whole family but one is away for the day at a Protestant march, his one brother remaining, who is a butcher and a sort of gangster, comes with a friend and murders him.  And even though most of the family members secretly know that this is what happened to him, yet they as well as the other guessing members of the community remain silent.  The story ends:  “The family would not ever talk about the day, but through their pain they would tell themselves that Milton’s death was the way things were, the way things had to be:  that was their single consolation.  Lost ground had been regained.”  This is yet another story in a progression of Christianity-related material, yet even though there’s a discernible pattern of events to it with a discernible ending, the tragedy of the fighting back and forth in the Northern Ireland of the time is highlighted:  one side loses ground, then the other side.  At times, it must have surely seemed that there was indeed no ending.  And the fact that none of the family members actually witnessed the event of the boy’s murder yet that all accepted it was necessary and had been done by a family member–what if it wasn’t?  What if it had been the breaking and entering that they apparently represented it as in public?  Again, there are characters surmising, not being sure of an ending, yet creating it for themselves.

In the short piece “A Day,” reminiscent in a sense of a dark Mrs Dalloway, though it’s seemingly simple enough, there is a sudden surprise “ending”; of course, the scene is rather of repetition and continuation and not of an actual isolated event at all, by the time that the story is over in words.  Mrs. Lethwes’s day is presented, event after event, a simple unfolding of a daily routine.  In the course of this routine, we learn that her husband, who is apparently a very kind and considerate person, is cheating on her, at least to judge by an intercepted letter of his which she read and threw away (we know only a few isolated facts from it which she assumes as a matter of course, and we never see the letter.  Is it possible that there is some other explanation?).  She is barren, and is afraid that her husband intends to leave her for the other woman, whom she imagines to be younger and more fertile than she.  The story moves slowly, chronologically, through the day.  It is only at the cocktail hour, while she is preparing dinner, that we hit upon the crux of the matter:  for her repeated cocktails as she is fixing the food show that she is in fact an alcoholic, which is the real surprise.  It seems that she drinks out of fear every day, of that being the one day in which her husband will come in and announce that the other woman is pregnant and that he is leaving her, Mrs. Lethwes.  The story ends with her having passed out, as it appears she often does, and her husband carrying her away gently to bed.  The emphasis in this story is divided between the ending she thinks is coming, and the continued sense of her husband’s love and gentleness, one playing against the other.  One wonders if it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The last sentence of “Marrying Damian” is in a certain sense a motto for the whole book, but more of that in a moment.  This story, as the last one in the book, is indeed entitled to have the last word, though the plot doesn’t force this conclusion.  Though the story  is evidently complete, it reverts in a way to the overall foregoing pattern of something unresolved.  When Johanna is five, she tells her mother, Claire, and her father (the “I” of the story) that she is going to marry Damian, a family friend who is their age, and who is already married.  A brief tale of the years passing shows them manifesting consternation and some amusement as Damian weds and divorces woman after woman.  He is their soap opera, if you will.  They don’t take Johanna’s words seriously.  After all, it’s not their problem.  But then comes the day when, on one of his periodic sponging visits, Damian and Johanna meet again;  she is twenty-seven.  The parents fear at once that she is taking to Damian as one of her human projects to an alarming degree, and that the conclusion is foregone.  Yet, they do not feel that they can do anything about it.  As the speaker sees it:  “It was too late to hate him.  It was too late to deny that we’d been grateful when our stay-at-home smugness had been enlivened by the tales of his adventures, or to ask him if he knew how life had turned out for the women who had loved him.  Instead we conversed inconsequentially.”  In a way, this story has commonalities with “Gilbert’s Mother,” in that a character is postulating a series of actions that may or may not be true, though in this case they are future actions; in the case of Gilbert’s mother, she is guessing at the actions of his immediate past.  And in both cases, their surmises are a sort of annunciatory angel, as in the central story’s artistic reference, though a sort of this flawed world, which may be imperfectly true.  What we are in fact being given a chance to see and speculate upon in this collection is in fact the number of times our actions are inconsequential and incomplete, until we shape them by our own beliefs and prognostications.  Then, they become the plots in our lives whose structures seem given by our stars.  As the character above says, we try to duck beneath what we may have caused to happen by “convers[ing] inconsequentially.”

Indeed, this is a fine book of stories, and one of the best I’ve ever found for carrying a theme from beginning to end.  I hope that you will read this book for yourself, for even if you know the plots by my recalling them, the point of a fine story is in the number of times it can be reread or retold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Sleepless Nights”–or, Getting My Insomnia Steaze on with Elizabeth Hardwick

I know that I certainly owe my readers an apology:  I have been away from the posting box for several weeks now, and during that time, occasional checks have shown me that my readers are a great deal more faithful than I am.  Readers from all over the world have been reading or possibly re-reading all my posts thus far, while I have been doing other things that called me away from the computer

What have I been doing, you ask?  Or possibly you’ve lost interest by now–let’s hope not, though.  I have been busy starting to get handmade gifts ready for Christmas in a few months.  And, I have been up early and late when I would have preferred to have been getting a good night’s sleep, many a night.  I am either sleepless thinking of all I have to get done, and have been wakeful in the wee hours (and finally, I usually give up and get up to start my day), or I’m up late at night, finishing up some aspect of one of my projects.  Sometimes, I have actually been up all night in my eagerness to get work done.  Little by little, I have been aware of how much more people could get done if only they didn’t sleep.  But finally, last night, my hectic schedule caught up with me:  I was so sleepy that all I could do was eat, read the very last of a book which has supplied me with a few moments here and there of literary pleasure during my work, and go off to sleep.

The book?  Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless NIghts.  How appropriate, I hear you say!  Yet, I have preferences in general for books which are not all about style and issues of style, whether of writing or of life.  But I had simply chosen this book off the shelf at random out of the sort of idle curiosity which has led to some of my most favorite literary adventures, so I persisted with it.  Though accordingly it’s not really my type of book, it was perfect for the episodic and halting manner in which I had time to read it.

The book begins by announcing an apparent scenario, topic, and theme, which I give here in brief:  “How nice it is–[this crocheted bedspread,] this production of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home.  The niceness and the squalor and sorrow in an apathetic battle–that is what I see.  More beautiful is the table with the telephone, the books and magazines, the Times at the door, the birdsong of rough, grinding trucks in the street….If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember.  Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself.”  From that point onward, however, one gets lost in a kaleidoscopic shifting back and forth from one place and time to the next, from a girlhood (based on Hardwick’s own) in Kentucky, to homes in New York, Maine, Connecticut, to many life stories not her own, for example of some of the cleaning ladies and laundresses she has known.  These are all short sketches, then the topic is switched to someone else, some other locale.  Perfect to me for reading from moment to moment, a few pages one night, a few pages the next!

There are literary riffs played on the life and times of Billie Holiday, detailing her behind-the-scenes experiences as viewed by a close outsider, close in proximity if not in emotional terms.  Yet, it is hard to tell just how much of the meandering and rather plotless narrative (one cannot reallly call it a story) is actual fact and how much is made up.  Hardwick mentions at one points that her mother criticized her for making up some things which weren’t true and putting them amongst things which were, and if one were out to get either a purely fictional story or essay or conversely a memoir, then the demand to separate fact from fiction might be apt.

However, this book is a book about getting one’s insomnia steaze on, about all the ideas, notions, pictures of the past and speculations about the present and future which occur to one when one is wakeful, and if one accepts the book on those terms, then one will be more than satisfied.  Yet, it is not, curiously, the author’s own insomnia which gets main mention, first mention, or even predominant mention in this book.  She tells about Louisa, for example, an acquaintance who actually suffers from insomnia, and says:  “After a dreamy day, Louisa went into her nights.  Always she insisted they were full of agitation, restlessness, torment.  She was forever like one watched over by wakefulness in her deepest sleep.  She awoke with a tremor in her hands, declaring the pains, the indescribable, absorbing drama of sleeplessness.  The tossing, the racing, the battles; the captures and escapes hidden behind her shaking eyelids.  No one was more skillful than she in the confessions of an insomniac.  These were redundant but stirring epics, profoundly felt and there to be pressed upon each morning, in the way one presses a bruiise to experience over and over the pain of it….Her hypnotic narration is like that of some folk poet, steeped, as they say, ‘in the oral tradition.’  Finally, it goes, sleep came over me…At last…It was drawing near to four o’clock.  The first color was in the sky…Only to wake up suddenly, completely….Unsavory egotism?  No, mere hope of definition, description, documentation.  The chart of life must be brought up to date every morning:  Patient slept fitfully, complained of the stitches in the incision.  Alarming persistence of the very symptoms for which the operation was performed.  Perhaps it is only the classical aching of the stump.”  Thus, insomnia is compared poetically to a sort of illness or medical condition for which one requires surgery, and which must be kept track of by someone to assure the patient’s health and well-being.

Romances of the author’s fictional self are sketched out (for one must remember that none of this book actually purports to be a memoir, while it prefers to blur the lines and distinctions between fact and fiction).  There are also portraits of romances and life histories in miniature of other sets of lovers of whom the author knew, or with whom she was acquainted, not necessarily anyone as famous as Billie Holiday, but people who form part of the landscape of the author’s mind.  In short, these are all the topics and scenarios about which a fictionalized version of the author has thought in the small hours, and the connection amongst them is maintained by the style of masterful reminiscence of a long life, though without the sort of condescension to “elderly” memories that one might see as a danger to be avoided in this style of writing.

Thus, it seems that it can truly be said, in the “Urban Dictionary” slang of our own time, that Elizabeth Hardwick is in this work showing her “steaze” ( I am told this word means, among other things, “styling with ease,” making it an appropriate if anachronistic accolade for such a writer).  It’s not essentially my kind of work, since I prefer to be reading a consistent or at least a less episodic story line.  Still, it kept me reading from night to night as I got my own insomnia steaze on, and a good literary companion is not to be cast down upon.  I would recommend this book for its sense of control of a difficult and querulous subject, a subject as difficult and querulous as an insomniac herself.  And who knows, you might come greatly to admire a writer who can seem to meander and wool-gather without once losing track of her readers’ interest and willingness to go along in an exploration of the places and times and acquaintances of a single, remarkable, if fictionalized, life.

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