26 September 2006

Isherwood, Christopher. Goodbye to Berlin (1939). New York: New Directions, 1945.

I'm very much in love with Christopher Isherwood of late. His self-directed-yet-self-negating sensibility something something something. I'm oddly having one hell of a time writing about this book, probably because I'm too busy thinking about this one.

Isherwood's book is famous, even if you've never heard of it. Here's the second paragraph:
I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed (1).
It's a posture of course, in that "Christopher Isherwood" (the first-person narrator of this novel) is thinking and assessing all the time. It's a kind of electric persona he uses, so much so that I read David Sedaris (and, to a lesser extent, Rakoff) on every other page:
He will never tell me anything about himself, or about the things which are most important to him. And because I am not as he is, because I am the opposite of this, and would gladly share my thoughts and sensations with forty million people if they cared to read them, I half admire Bernhard but also half dislike him (158-9).
Is there a gay male autobiographical raconteurian sensibility?

This book became I Am a Camera with Julie Harris and then it became Cabaret with Liza Minelli—both women playing the role of Sally Bowles, who I found to be one of the lesser interesting characters in the book. But she's straight and pretty and sexed-up and tragic, and so she reads well with mainstream audiences, I imagine. My favorite is Isherwood, in either author or narrator mode; whoever it is that produced the following:
You can feel [the Prussian plains] all round you, to-night, creeping in upon the city, like an immense waste of unhomely ocean—sprinkled with leafless copses and ice-lakes and tiny villages which are remembered only as the outlandish names of battlefields in half-forgotten wars. Berlin is a skeleton which aches in the cold: it is my own skeleton aching. I feel in my bones the sharp ache of the frost in the girders of the overhead railway, in the ironwork of balconies, in bridges, tram-lines, lamp-standards, latrines. The iron throbs and shrinks, the stone and the bricks ache dully, the plaster is numb (186).

21 September 2006

Lennon, J. Robert. "Happyland: A Novel." Harper's. Oct. 2006: 41-61.

Finished! I want at least one of the half-dozen or so magazines I subscribe to to serialize a novel at any given time. No wonder Dickens is so famous. D.F. Wallace in past essays or interviews has theorized the ways reading books are like dating people (or maybe it was J. Franzen, whom such a thing sounds so like), in that you have that time you were together, and with good books you look back on it fondly, and sometimes with the possibility of getting together again sometime. Very straight-man, sure, but that's kind of what it's like to read a novel in serialization. Or, rather, if such a metaphor between reading and dating exists, it's enhanced by reading a novel in serialization.

I want to quote from the penultimate paragraph which won't I think ruin anything for those of you who haven't Finished! the book yet. I want to quote it to you because it's probably the exact reason I love reading novels like this one—i.e., realistic novels about everyday people's struggles (how gauche of me to admit that I like these!):
... How many months did [Ruth, the librarian of this town's small college] spend spinning fantasies of putting Happy [the doll mogul who's moved in and taken over the town] in her place? How many times has she spoken to the showerhead, the rhododendrons, the computer screen, the stacks, delivering snappy put-downs, devastating rebuttals, righteous diatribes? More than she could count. You'd think the trial would have been enough to satisfy Ruth Spinks, but her moments in the witness box were a disappointment, diluted as they were by formal civility and hostile cross-examination, the long-hoped-for verdict offset by the town's humiliating admission that it had been deceived. And so, no, there was no satisfaction: quite the opposite, in fact. Only leaving here, Ruth reasons, will purge Happy Masters at last fom her mind; only putting these miserable years behind her for good will bring her peace. She imagines what lies ahead: pulling away from the curb, Equinox receding in the sideview mirror, the drive downstate and into the city. For dinner tonight, she will visit the Vietnamese place around the corner from her building, and she'll sleep on the floor, like a student, beside the clanking radiator. The smell of the previous occupant's cat will wrinkle her nose, and the sound of traffic will wake her before dawn. She'll get up, and buy a paper, and read and smoke and drink coffee in blissful—and permanent—solitude. All that, mere moments and miles away.
Putting aside the texture of the prose and the way the paragraph hinges on "no" and "satisfaction" what I love about this is how instructive it is. "Here, Dusty," it says, but probably uses my real name. "Here is how lives are lead."

This is probably me overrationalizing the simple fact that Ruth is the character I, and I imagine most readers, relate to the most. But getting me to connect enough with a character that want to watch her be well in life is another feat about which I'm happy to spend hours chatting.

19 September 2006

Brontë, Charlotte. Villette (1853). New York: Penguin Classic, 2004.

These things are always spoiled by waiting until after class discussion to post. I had little to say about this novel, and now there's lots to say, but all of it jumbled and still budding in my head. Shortly: one of the earliest novels written in the first-person that I can think of, and the narrator/character, Lucy Snowe, is, as her name implies, this cold, observing person, for whom love and romance are never really meant to be. Her narration is extremely unreliable. Compared to, say, Austen et al.'s 19thC implied-author narrator, she's a terrible storyteller, so uncertain of what her audience needs to know. This leads to some fascinating effects, to be sure, but like all big 400+-page 19thC novels, the act itself of reading through page after page—particularly for a class, and thus stressed and under a time crunch—isn't one I'd wish on most people.

My adviser said it best: "I love those novels.... They're perfect for long winters or summers."

So I'd imagine, if there weren't four or five other books I could read in the same amount of time.

14 September 2006

Blume, Judy. Then Again, Maybe I Won't. New York: Dell, 1974.

Because boys go through puberty, too. Thanks, Judy, author of some of the best titles I've ever run across. Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. The One in the Middle is a Green Kangaroo. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself.

And of course: Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret.

11 September 2006

Genet, Jean. Our Lady of the Flowers. Trans. B. Frechtman. Paris: Morihien Press, 1949.

This is a novel so entrenched in the idea of the novel-writing act as a form of self-delusion and vital fantasy that it's impossible either to know what exactly happened and didn't happen in the world of the book and also to say anything engaging about it this soon after-the-fact. I'll try, though.

Quickly: Jean Genet wrote this while in prison for theft. His narrator is a man in prison (guess his name) who bides the time until his trial by making up a story about Divine, a femmey alter ego who picks up tricks here and there, and falls in love with the hairy and smelly and tres butch pimp, Darling—pimp being the old-skool term for gigolo. Also, there's a thief/murderer nicknamed Our Lady of the Flowers. So you have a love triangle of sorts in place (Darling and Our Lady turn out to be father and son, respectively), with the third figure being both left out of things (in the form of Divine) and yet both the creator and thus benefactor of it all (in the form of Jean).

The language is almost oppressively gorgeous and intense. That's a false adverb. Doggedly? Exhaustedly? Here's my favorite passage:
Standing and from afar, my body passes through thine and thine, from afar, through mine. We are creating the world. Everything changes...and knowing it!

Loving each other like, before separating, two fighting young boxers who tear each other's shirt, and, when they are nude, stupefied at being so beautiful, think they see themselves in a mirror, stand there open-mouthed a second, shake (the rage at being caught in a trap) their tangled hair, smile at each other (a damp smile) and grip each other like two wrestlers in Greco-Roman wrestling, interlock their muscles in the perfect connections offered by the muscles of the other, and drop to the mat while their hot sperm spurting high up maps out on the sky a milky way* where other constellations which I know how to read are inscribed: the constellations of the Sailor, the Boxer, the Cyclist, the Fiddler, the Spahi, the Dagger. Thus, a new map of Heaven is outlined on the wall of the garret where Divine, after each masturbation, shoots her spunk (63).
The superior translation of the novel, by the same dude but like done twenty years later or something, ends that passage with "come", which is probably better.

At any rate, a very good paper on this novel points to the above as an instance of gay fiction performing simultanesouly an ethnography of its characters and also a catalogue of those characters' desires. Which might just be fancy academic speak for "gay men are who they want but don't always want who they are."
* This is the second best description of the Milky Way I've read of late. The best was in one of the books written about below, who knows which, wherein the Milky Way is described as something erased on a blackboard.