31 January 2007

Sand, George. Indiana (1832). New York: Signet Classics, 1993.

French novels!

In this one, Indiana is a woman born and raised on Reunion Island (off the coast of Madagascar) who now lives in France and is married to a brute. He's a man who kills dogs in anger, that sort of thing. (At least two dogs die in this book, one of them being bludgeoned in the head with an oar and left to drown. Very brutal.)

She also lives with her cousin, Ralph, and her maid/adoptive sister, Noun. Well, it turns out that Noun has caught the eye of a local aristocrat named Raymon, and they've been having an affair. Over time, though, Raymon spends a lot of nights in "society" and grows to fall out of love with Noun. In fact, he begins to fall in love with Indiana, whom he meets at a ball. Noun feels that his love has waned and writes him a letter. Disclosed therein: she's pregnant with his baby. She pleads with him to come to the house she lives in (Indiana's house) so they can talk about it.

Raymon arrives, thinking he'll give her money and make her go away. When he gets there, he sees that she's dressed as Indiana, and she proceeds to lure Raymon up to Indiana's room. They drink and fight, and in the heady confusion of it all, they fuck right on Indiana's bed.

Oh, she's out for the weekend or something.

The next day, Raymon wakes and finds the door locked from the outside. Noun is keeping him for later. But Indiana, of course, comes home early, and Noun is forced to hide Raymon behind the drapes. He's uncovered, eventually, and Indiana (who has known for his increasing love for her), asks if he'd go so far as to break into her bedroom. Such gall! Noun, hearing that Raymon has indeed professed love for her mistress/sister, runs out of the room. Raymon is banished in disgust.

The next morning, Noun's body is found floating in the lake.

And all this in just the first 50 pages!

Les romans Française!

24 January 2007

DeLillo, Don. Cosmopolis. New York: Scribner, 2003.

I've been embarrassed for Don DeLillo since 1999, when a friend handed me White Noise to read. He said I'd like it, and by all accounts I should have. A novel (which I liked) from the 80s (which I liked) about popular culture (about which I was obsessed).

I hated it. I couldn't finish. From the tone of the sentences I sensed that here was a book that spent hours mystifying the everyday in such a too-serious-and-cloying-for-its-own-good manner that I was made completely sick of the time I'd been spending with its narrator. I rushed quickly to True Stories and my one Talking Heads compilation as a kind of balm.

I disregard Don DeLillo with the same vehemence and weak rationale with which I disregard the Boomer generation as a whole. His allure for others I think lies in his ability to put into words* that peculiar mix of wonder and anxiety and estrangement that Boomers seem to feel for "the present" (by which term I mean the world after the Sixties (i.e., the world as it has existed each time DeLillo has put another novel out), which is of course the world that Boomers themselves created, the world to which the rest of us (by which term I mean those people of the "letter generations" to which the Boomers have given themselves the privilege of putting names) are unwitting heirs).

David Byrne might technically be a Boomer himself, but it's clear to me that he's not of the same generation as DeLillo and the critics that have allowed him to get away with murder for so long. I bring him up because, in ways I can't quite put into words right now, the two men seem to have similar aims in their work, and David Byrne has made much more thought-provoking, envelope-pushing, and idea-driven art that dissects and interrogates the culture(s) of the present(s) than DeLillo ever has. The latter can learn a lot, I think, from the former, and it's the former I will always return when I need to get what both seem to be offering.

What's frustrating, though, is that the former is undoubtedly a fan of the latter (though I'd be willing to put money on DeLillo's total disinterest in Byrne), because everyone I admire, and every writer I seem to admire, adores and loves and is a total fan of DeLillo. I, clearly, am missing out. But setting aside his incredibly crafted sentences, it seems DeLillo's great theme is nothing more than Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore. No, Don, we're not, and most of us have never been to this "Kansas" you speak of.

I think the reason I hate Don DeLillo so much is that I want so much of what he has: the extended career, the ability to publish novels driven solely by "interesting" ideas, the ear for rhythm, and, yes, the fame, the money, the critical adoration. And yet, despite wanting what Don DeLillo has, I never ever want to write the way he does.
* If there's one thing I will always give Don DeLillo, it's his words, his sentences, the way he can drop the phrase "toothpaste suburbs" at the exact moment in a sentence such that the image is perfectly formed in your head despite all lack of regular logic needed to form it; DeLillo is a man hugely gifted in metaphor and rhythm.

21 January 2007

Stendhal. The Red and the Black (1830). Trans Burton Raffel. New York: Modern Library, 2004.

This may be the first full French novel I've ever read, which embarrasses me to admit, but I can't recall any others, except Didier Van Cauwelaert's One-Way, which I picked up solely because of the Sam Lipsyte blurb on the back of it. I wasn't impressed by that book, but I loved this one. I think, in order to love it as much as I did, one has to have been enrolled in back-to-back-to-(almost)-back semesters of 19th-century British literature. These books (think Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Brontës) are full of discretion and propriety, and if anyone dies it's in a very sterile way. Maybe Charlotte B. is an exception to the above, but it's a generalization I'll present as the truth for now.

Here, we have Julien Sorel, who not only has actual sex with two women (actual sex not appearing in British literature until, well, Joyce, probably), but he's married to neither of them! And the first one is married to someone else! And the second one he actually gets pregnant! And Stendhal never! once! moralizes! this! behavior! It's incredible!

If there is a moral dilemma at the center of the novel it's this: what is it that should impel us forward in our individual lives? Is it passion, romance, the red? Or is it duty, professionalism, the black? These days, I'm beginning to think that this is the real existential problem of being human. I think also that it's a cop-out to say, "Well, Dusty, a balance of both is what's best in life." Stendhal doesn't provide any answers, ending his novel more bleakly than any other I've read in recent times, with (spoiler warning) death and loneliness and injustice and abandonment, and something tells me that this kind of hard-truth approach to narrative is something I should start to expect this semester. Madame Bovary commits suicide, doesn't she? Haven't I read this numerous times? I'm pleased that the French are tough enough as a people to attack all this stuff head-on. Maybe I'll finally grow up as a result.


My edition of the novel is 485 pages long and around page 341 here's something unexpected that happens:
After that wild night, [Mademoiselle de la Mole] believed she'd managed to triumph over her love.

(Writing these things, I know will still further injure this unfortunate author. Prigs and prudes will accuse me of indecency. But it does no harm to young women, shining so brilliantly in Parisian drawing rooms, to suggest that one, just one, among them might be susceptible to the insane acts disfiguring Mathilde's character. She's a completely imaginary person, and indeed conceived well outside the manners and mores which, in the pages of history, will secure such a distinguished place for our nineteenth-century civilization.

[. . .]

(Ah, my dear sir: a novel is a mirror, talking a walk down a big road. Sometimes you see nothing but blue skies; sometimes you'll see the muck in the mud piles along the road. And you'll accuse the man carrying the mirror in his basket of being immoral! His mirror reflects muck, so you'll accuse the mirror, too! Why not also accuse the highway where the mud is piled, or, more strongly still, the street inspector who leaves water wallowing in the roads, so the mud piles can come into being.

(Then we're all agreed: Mathilde's character is impossible, in this time we live in, this age no less prudent than virtuous. I suspect you'll find it less irritating now, as I continue telling the tale of this lovable girl's foolishness.) (341-42, emphasis added)
Now might be a good time to mention that this novel was written in 1829-1830. And after reading this passage, which comes right in the middle of a chapter, something hit me that I'd been mulling over for a while now. Reading over any decent number of early-to-mid-19th-century novels has shown me that the po-mo shenanigans of John Barth, et al, were nothing innovative or different. They were merely (clumsy and obnoxious, in my opinion) attempts to reclaim or reconstruct texts' awarenesses of their own creation that James and the Moderns worked so hard to conceal.

The 19th century was just as interested in coming clean as the 1960s were. They just didn't need to couch it all in hip neo-critical terms of revolution. They didn't have to kill the author in order to make us skeptical of him.

09 January 2007

de Duras, Clare. Ourika (1823). Trans. John Fowles. New York: MLA, 1994.

This is a novella that was assigned to me to read before my first session of the 19th-century French novel class I'm taking this semester. I've never been assigned pre-semester reading before. I guess I don't mind, seeing as how this took me all of an hour to get through. A very strange book, though. Told in the first person, it's about a girl who is taken from Senegal and sent to live with a member of the French aristocracy. This is in, oh, the 1770s/1780s. She's given an education and lives very much like everyone else around her. Then, one day, she overhears another woman wondering aloud what will happen to Ourika when she is fit for marriage; no one would stoop to marry a black woman. This, supposedly, is the first time that Ourika is made aware of her racial difference.

She spends the rest of the novella in a near-suicidal state, wishing for God to bring her death, rather than live in the misery of her feelings of exclusion. Then she realizes she's been in love with her adoptive brother all along, and decides to channel this feeling into a love for God. She becomes a nun. The end.

Fowles in his introduction speaks highly of the ways this text is revolutionary and moving, but I think we're reading it mostly to get a historical context for the beginning of the 19th century in France. I hate reading books for this reason.

08 January 2007

Amidon, Stephen. Human Capital. New York: FSG, 2004.

I love novels!

I love novels in the way they stand in opposition to romances—that is, I love long narratives that take place in present-day times and tell stories about middle-class people living their lives of human drama. This is, like, a classic novel, telling the story of two families living in Connecticut, both of them having some trouble, financially. As you can tell from the title, money runs through this entire book. The Hagels used to be doing okay, but are now in some serious financial shit. The Mannings have always been swimming in pools and pools of money (they live in a gated estate, the paterfamilias manages a hedge fund, etc.), but are on the brink of losing it all. Boo hoo, right? We all have money problems, but what's great about this book is how Amidon allows us such close access to his characters that their boring old money woes become riveting fiction.

And then there's this whole car accident that happens while people are drinking, which turns a very compelling novel into a boring old crime drama. It's like a Law & Order episode. If there's anything I can never get on the side of it's the achieving of human drama through law-breaking. Cops make for boring characters, I think. The threat of jail time serves as a tedious way to heighten tension.

03 January 2007

Various. Reading Challenges. Internet: Blogger, 2006-07.

I just recently stumbled across the new (?) Internet phenomenon of the "reading challenge", which, as I understand it, is much like NaNoWriMo or its poetry cousin, in that there's a set amount and often type of books one has to read in a set amount of time. Some have prizes to award. Most of them are good in that they allow one to pick the books, and often encourage getting through the ever-deepening pile of "I'll get to these soon" books that one often accumulates.

Here is a link to a post that seems to assemble all the current challenges. I'd participate, but it'll be a challenge if I can read anything not assigned to me between now and May. If any of you three readers participate, lemme know here or elsewhere.

Anonymous. Dusty by the Topiaries. Williamsburg, 2006.

02 January 2007

Tóibín, Colm. The Master. New York: Scribner, 2005.

My first novel of 2007 was very, very good, but strange in its plot structure. I'll warn you now after that last sentence that I've done zero writing of any kind in more than two weeks and, thus, am rusty.

What I mean is this. The Master is, you may assume, about Henry James, specifically the Henry James of 1895-1900, after he's written all his famous books and is now trying to decide where to go in middle-age. It's also about Henry James the 54-year-old virgin. Now, knowing this, it seems that if the novel were a more traditional one, it would move toward James writing The Golden Bowl, or whatever great work came out in 1900-1901. It would, like, end with this novel's publication and, its being lauded or vilified would serve as a kind of comment, or point toward a theme. And/or, the novel would end with James actually allowing himself an intimate sexual experience with another man, which Tóibín implies James has always wanted.

This novel ends with neither, nor does it end with the availability of either, but the, for whatever reason, eventual rejection of such. It ends with Henry entertaining his brother William and family at his new home in the English countryside. In fact it's never clear what exactly James wants, and so he's hardly a traditional protagonist, moving toward an attaining of that thing he wants. We're meant to understand that James wants sex with men, but James won't ever admit to himself that this is what he wants, or would perhaps like for a time. So the novel just progresses, and mostly in James's head. There's absolutely no indication of where the story's headed at any given time.

It's, thus, probably a lot like a James novel, I guess, it being quite some time since I've read James.

Here's something from the only page I dogeared, and it should be known that I never dogear the pages of the books I own, because I am precious and dull. In this scene, James is composing a story, and has just decided to insert into it an object from his own life—his brother Wilky's festering blanket with which he came home, injured, from the war. And really what's incredible about this book is the way Tóibín is able to dramatize the wholly internal action of "thinking out" a story while writing it. It's almost magic.
The feeling of power was new to him. This raid on his own memories, this parading of an object so close to him, so deeply part of his own personal story that no one might ever know where this moment in his story came from, made him believe that he had done something daring and original. Now in the night, he wrote in this room in a rented house in the city, with his parents asleep close by, and his brother William and his sister Alice and his aunt Kate also sleeping, Bob still at war, and Wilky returned once more to his regiment. And none of them, not even himself, was aware of what he had embarked on, what he had discovered as he wrote.
The H.J. of this novel is an H.J. who creates seemingly 85 percent of his fiction from real life, real people he's known, altered only slightly in name and circumstance as they enter onto his pages. It's been a very helpful and enlightening read for someone who thinks that taking even five percent from real life is simple, dirty cheating.