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“Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel”–Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself”

As the French playwright and thinker Jean Racine once claimed, “Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.”  Horace Walpole echoed the sentiment, but put the two clauses in the reverse order.  Whatever the order, the sentiment is one that often applies to the way fiction, not to mention drama, works.  The unique thing about the work of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is that it produces both feelings at the same time in those who read it, not the usual sense of tragicomedy, but a studied blankness of effect and affect both at the end of each of her short stories in this book, which bears the subtitle “Love Stories.”  And this is not a case in which one can blame the translation, which those who know Russian claim is an adept one (by the translator Anna Summers, who has translated others of Petrushevskaya’s works as well).

I say that there is a “studied blankness of effect and affect both” because there is:  the blankness of effect is contained in the continual twist which takes place at the end of each short story, where one is expecting a sense of resolution.  There is in each case a sense of nothing really being resolved, but a sense of reality, of truth to real life and to the way thing actually happen, of the oftentimes inconclusive result even of big events in life.  Just because so many other fictions proceed by well-worn formulas, this lack of final effect produces its own sense of surprise and shock, and often a rueful chuckle at one’s own expectations.  The blankness of affect relates to the marked restraint of feeling in the narrator’s exposition of her characters and their situations:  she doesn’t feel sorry for them in the conventional sense, doesn’t play sad little violin solos on her creative instrument, and doesn’t encourage the reader to feel sorry for them either.

And yet, one does feel for these characters, when all is said and done.  It’s the author’s own sense of balance and discipline in dealing with the sorrowful facts of these character’s lives, with their strange and funny solutions to their predicaments, with their often unmerited suffering and undeserved rewards, which make this book the book it is.  It’s as if the author took a whiny, mournful, disgruntled little series of events, and removed the vital connections of characters’ trajectories up and down in feeling and action, and instead put a laugh here, and a poignant remark there, in places where they weren’t before expected.  And she doesn’t pull her punches, or bestow or waste any sympathy on her characters; such sympathy as they deserve, they may or may not get from the other characters (and in a final way from the reader, at the end of each story), but they don’t get it from the narrative voice, which is calm and full of detail and fact, but which only supplies these and insists that the reader come to his or her own conclusions.  Yet, from this restrained puppeteering, there is tenderness, coming from who can say where?  All one knows when reading is that Petrushevskaya is like a canny and watchful parent, who without apparent doting or pride harshly pushes her progeny forth, in such a way that she cunningly wins that doting for them from the audience, who feels for them that they have such a dragon of a progenitor that they surely deserve to be lauded and made much of by their auditors.

Even the title of this book is one which bestows that strict tone of restraint on events:  the major events of that story, “there once lived a girl who seduced her sister’s husband, and he hanged himself,” are ones which are taken away from the reader who hopes to follow the path of major events.  The title instead insists that there is something else of importance, and it is thus that the reader must enter the story and supply the feeling, the startlement, the connections between event and feeling.  This is a book which rewards curiosity and investigation well, and which gives the reader sated by ordinary fictional motifs and sallies the charge of a lifetime.  I hope you will read it soon, and discover just how original a talent Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is.

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Autumn Days Revisited–“A Change of Seasons”

Other than love, probably one of the most tried (or trite) and true subjects for poetry is the change of seasons.  There are a few new things to say on the topic, however, sadly enough.  Here goes:

 

A Change of Seasons

The fall is come
And the days are doing what they call
"Drawing in."
And I too am drawing in,
Shutting down and pulling in
My seasonal feelers
Like a snail's antennae,
Because sounds will be different in winter,
When they are muted by the snowfall.
My aspirations too
Are becoming flat characters,
Losing their roundedness,
No longer speaking of fully realized possibilities
But now only signaling outlines of things
Which may or may not come.
We have no hope of escaping
Without leaving the temperate zone,
Though meteorologists are already disputing
Inches of white, feet of rain,
Days' light, Nights' dark,
While what will come will come
Whether they argue or not.
And it's not especially dread that I feel,
For I'm used to it by now.
The unsettling element is rather
That things are now topsy-turvy,
And for certain days of autumn, it's summer,
For some days of winter, it's autumn or even July,
For some days of spring too, it'll be
An early and undue warm season,
Then back into a retrograde deep freeze on days
When we expect the sun to be smiling.
We are even getting used to climate change,
The adaptability of humans
Being apparently our biggest selling point.
But perhaps the question is due to Nature,
Or the gods, or Fate, or whatever you may happen
To believe in,
"How hard is it to change?"
What else should we be asking,
We, who are at least partly to blame
For this untoward state of affairs,
Given our ability to adapt,
Shouldn't we practice
Adapting our selfishness and greed,
Instead of trying to figure out how
To make the earth spin round in the opposite direction?
Even now, experts try to figure out how we can control the weather--
Wouldn't it be easier, and more economical,
All things considered,
To learn to control ourselves?
That would be a change of seasons I could really get into.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 10/17/17

This isn’t a particularly “poetic” poem; in fact, it more than borders on the prosaic.  Nonetheless I wanted to share the point of view.  There may be better poems for other days.

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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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