Archive for May, 2017

Books we don’t read

For a long, long time now, I have been banging on to anyone who will listen (not many, admittedly) about declining literary standards. And now, here’s further evidence.

Only 4 years ago, a list was compiled (don’t ask me how) of the books we tend most to lie about having read. Topping that list were Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, Nineteen Eighty Four and The Lord of the Rings – all sturdy, time-honoured classics. A similar list recently published is made up of books that, whatever merits they may have, are nowhere near so highbrow – The Hunger Games, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and the like. Even The Da Vinci Code.

(The only title the two lists have in common is The Lord of the Rings, and there, I do actually sympathise with the lying: I’ve lied about this one myself, as I explain here.)

One lies about books primarily, I guess, in order to impress. If I were to lie about books I have read, I’d say I’ve read The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and the like – books that will make me appear fiercely intellectual, or, at the very least, a bit less of a shithead. I don’t really see why I would want to lie about having read The Da Vinci Code. I don’t really see why anyone would.

And here, it seems to me, is irrefutable evidence of the decline in our literary standards: we’ve stopped not reading challenging books.

O tempora! O mores!

Books that make me cry

I was asked recently by the administrators of the website Rogue Cart if I would like to put together a list of ten books of my choosing, on a theme of my choosing, and write a few words on each. Never being one to hide my light under a bushel, I agreed. And, being somewhat maudlin and lachrymose by temperament, I decided to choose books that address the theme of grief. Or, as the title of my list puts it, Ten Books That Make You Cry. (Strictly speaking, they’re not all “books”: I’ve included a few poems and short stories in the list.)

Please do have a look.

When Chekhov’s gun fails to fire

The principle of Chekhov’s Gun is a well-known one. If a gun is shown in Act One, it must go off some time before the end of the play. In other words, there must be no such thing as an irrelevant detail. Everything must serve a specific purpose within the work.

And yet, I can’t help wondering how good this advice necessarily is. If the purpose of one’s writing is to depict some aspect of reality as truthfully as one can, then a fictional world in which there is no place for the arbitrary, the random, the irrelevant, is very far from the real world as we know it.

Although Chekhov repeated this advice several times, one wonders how seriously he took it himself. At the start of the second act of The Cherry Orchard – for many, Chekhov’s dramatic masterpiece – Yepikhodov produces a gun on stage. It never goes off. Indeed, it is never referred to again in the rest of the play, either directly or indirectly. It is almost as if Chekhov is drawing attention to his having flouted his own rule.

I guess it merely goes to show that “rules” are for lesser writers. The Chekhovs of this world made up their own, as and when required. And when a rule previously formulated is no longer required, it is discarded.

The problem still remains for writers – whether they are Chekhov or some teenager convinced he has a novel in him: how does one steer a course between, on the one hand, that air of contrivance that can all too easily appear when the arbitrariness of life is removed, and, on the other hand, the shapelessness that can occur when it isn’t?

Well, I have no idea how to solve this. This is one of the many reasons why I don’t try my hand at writing fiction myself, and why I admire so much those who do pull it off.

Some ferocious feedback from Henry James

An article in a recent edition of the London Review of Books quoted some feedback received by a young author from Henry James:

I am myself a fanatic on the subject of form, style, the evidence of intention and meditation, of chiselling and hammering out in literary things that I am afraid I am rather a cold-blooded judge, rather likely to be offensive to a young story-teller on the question of quality. I’m not so sure that yours strikes me as quite so ferociously literary as my ideal.

I love the use of the word “ferociously” in the second sentence after all the circumlocution and, seemingly, the gentlemanly reticence of the first. How very Jamesian.

As for the young author in question, I guess it serves him right for asking feedback from Henry James in the first place.

“The Member of the Wedding” by Carson McCullers

*** SPOILER ALERT***

It might seem a trifle absurd, perverse even, to preface a brief discussion of a novel as plotless as this with a spoiler alert, but, given the few disgruntled e-mails I’ve received when I have previously failed to provide such an alert, it’s best to stray on the safe side in these matters.

For plot appears to be the least of Carson McCullers’ concerns. Which raises questions about what her concerns actually are, and I wish I knew how to answer that. I deliberately delayed writing anything about this novel till a few weeks after I had finished reading it, hoping that its various powerful resonances would settle in my mind somewhat, and allow some sort of coherent picture to emerge; but, so far, that has not happened. It continues, however, to resonate, and if, as T. S. Eliot famously said, a poem may be appreciated even before it is understood, it may, I thought, be worthwhile articulating some of my uncomprehending appreciation. It may even be worthwhile merely to register my bemusement.

Part of the reason why themes and concerns of this novel are so difficult to articulate is that Carson McCullers herself leaves them unarticulated. Much of the novel is filtered through the consciousness of its principal character, the twelve-year-old girl Frankie, or F. Jasmine as she likes sometimes to style herself, or the conventional Frances as she becomes at the end; quite frequently, she does not have the ability to articulate what she thinks, or feels. Throughout the novel, we are told that she feels things that she does not know how to name, and Carson McCullers is happy to leave these feelings unnamed. And there is much unfinished also: the only plotline of sorts that develops concerns a soldier who, mistaking Frankie for a girl somewhat older, tries to have his way with her in a hotel room, whereupon she strikes him on the head with a glass pitcher, and runs off. She does not know how badly hurt the soldier is, nor, indeed, whether she has killed him. And we, the reader, never get to know either. It is left as unfinished and as unresolved for us as it is for Frankie. To introduce a narrative line and then refuse to resolve it may seem a cardinal crime in the art of storytelling, but here, it is quite deliberate: the narrative strands, such as they are, remain unresolved, because they are, by their very nature, incapable of resolution.

And yet, the novel is certainly about something. Edmund Wilson, presumably frustrated and bemused by it all, declared the entire work to be “pointless”, but it seems highly unlikely that so fine an intelligence and so subtle an artistry as Carson McCullers’ would labour so many years over a narrative that is ultimately “pointless”. Leaving that aside – for, of course, biographical details of the author should play no part in literary criticism – the novel, whatever may lie at its centre, resonates far too powerfully for “pointlessness” to be a valid option. If the novel refuses to articulate its themes clearly (under the cover that Frankie herself cannot articulate them), we must conclude that they cannot be articulated – that they are, essentially, as incapable of being articulated as the narrative strands are of being resolved.

What we can say with some confidence, I think, is what this novel is not. This is not a coming-of-age novel. Neither is this a novel about teenage angst (or, more accurately, pre-teenage angst): Frankie Addams is not a female equivalent of Holden Caulfield. We may say this with confidence because neither of these pat explanations can account for the effect the novel makes upon the reader. (Well, this reader, at least.) The appreciation that Eliot spoke about that precedes understanding is, in this instance, an appreciation of certain vague, mysterious regions that are well outside the scope of novels of adolescent angst.

We are taken at some length into Frankie’s thoughts, and, at the centre of her thoughts, it seems to me, is a vaguely glimpsed concern for the nature of her individual identity. Here, I think, we need to be careful, because there is so much guff currently spoken and written on the question of “identity”, that it might be easy to see this novel as a comment on what is currently termed “identity politics”; but such a view of the novel would be even more facile and reductive than to see it as a coming-of-age novel, or as a novel about adolescent angst. What concerns Frankie, though expressed with a childlike naivety, is that age-old philosophical issue of our consciousness of our own individual identity, as distinct from the individual identities of others:

“Doesn’t it strike you as strange that I am I and you are you? … And we can look at each other, and touch each other, and stay together year in and year out in the same room. Yet always I am I and you are you. And I can’t be anything else but I, and you can’t be anything else but you.”

What is it that fixes us in our own, personal identity? Is there some sort of essence of self, of “I”, that is independent of this person whose body I happen to inhabit, and whose name I happen to bear? If not, why not? And if so, why am I stuck, constrained, to be this person?

Frankie wonders also about our perceptions. Are they consistent from person to person, from “I” to “you”, from “I” to, perhaps, another “I”?

“I see a green tree. And to me it is green. And you call this tree green also. And we would agree on this. But is this colour you see as green the same colour I see as green? Or say we both call a colour black. But how do we know that what you see as black is the same colour I see as black?”

If we are indeed, each one of us, an “I” and nothing but “I”, how can we be confident of a commonality of perception? And if we cannot be confident of this, how can we even communicate with each other?

Frankie is isolated from others. Her father works in a store, and barely appears in the novel. She is what is known is a “tomboy”, and appears, for reasons not entirely made clear, to have no friends of her own age. She spends most of her time hanging out in the kitchen with Berenice, a black cook, and John Henry, her six-year-old cousin, and much of the novel is taken up with scenes set in the kitchen with the three of them – a child, an adult, and Frankie, on the borderline between these two states – talking to each other, seemingly inconsequentially. But their conversations, while believable as conversations between a small child, an adolescent, and an uneducated adult, always seem to be pointing towards something else – towards something none of them can articulate, and which Carson McCullers refuses to articulate on their behalf.

Frankie longs to inhabit identities other than her own. John Henry would like everyone to be half-boy, half-girl. Berenice, a black woman with a blue glass eye, wants a world where people are all the same colour – a light brown, “with blue eyes and black hair”. These characters may not be able to articulate or even perhaps recognise it as such, but all three of them, in their own ways, feel constrained by the fixed nature of the world, that allocates them but one identity that they must regard as uniquely their own.

For Berenice, a black woman living in the Deep South in the 1940s, her identity – however fluid she may like it to be – is certainly fixed: she is “black”. This one simple fact of her identity condemns her. And yet, she had been happy once. Her first husband, Ludie Freeman – whom, we learn with a shock, she had married when she was only thirteen, just a year older than Frankie – she had loved, and had been happy with. And the memory of that happiness remains for her something precious, something she did not at first wish to share with Frankie. But then he died, and she married again, three more times, with each marriage more disastrous than the previous. She had chosen her later husbands with no better criteria than that they had shared certain superficial resemblances with her beloved first, but these resemblances did not define them: identity, despite its fixed quality, remains an elusive and unnameable matter. Her fourth and last husband had been the worst: he was violent, abusive, possibly mentally unstable, and had gouged out one of her eyes. This horrible detail is imparted to us in an almost casual manner. Although Bernice still dreams of a world in which all racial identities are merged into one, her first husband, whom she continues to love even beyond his death, had an individual identity that cannot be replicated: “he” was “he”, and no-one else.

Frankie, however, longs for a fluidity within which individual identities may merge. Her older brother, a soldier (this novel is set during the final stages of WW2), is to marry his girl-friend, and Frankie dreams of, and, eventually, becomes obsessed with, leaving behind her home town, which restricts her in ways she cannot articulate, and go off with her brother and his newly-married wife. Frankie is not satisfied being a “member of the wedding” only in the sense of being the groom’s sister: she longs for nothing less than to be one of the wedded parties herself, to merge her own personal identity with those of the married couple. This obsession she develops of merging her personal identity with those of others soon takes centre-stage in this novel. Thoughts of the wedding begin to obsess to such a degree that even the sudden death of an uncle barely makes an impact on her, because, after all, it’s nothing to do with the wedding, is it?

Typically, the wedding itself is not narrated directly: resolving narrative strands in terms of “what happened next” is not what this novel is about. We are given to understand, however, that Frankie had had to be physically restrained and pulled back when she had tried to leave with the newlyweds. She is utterly disgraced, humiliated. The world of fixity may be questioned when one is a child, but as an adult, it has to be accepted. But with this acceptance comes a loss:

She was sitting next to Berenice, back with the coloured people, and when she thought of it she used the mean word she had never used before, nigger – for now she hated everyone and wanted only to spite and shame.

Everybody is caught, one way or another, as Berenice says at one point.

Frankie makes one final attempt to escape this world of tyrannical fixity: she tries to run away, she knows not where. But the police are alerted, and she is soon found, and taken back home. In a novel such as this, where everything seems charged with meaning, it is no accident that the police are referred to as “the Law”, with a capital “L”. She has tried to escape, but the Law returns her to where she had been.

All through this, the war, now in its final stages, is raging in faraway Europe, and forms a sort of discordant background music. News from the distant war comes through – the horrors of the fields of combat, the slaughter of civilians, the unimaginable and unnameable abominations of the newly liberated death camps. Berenice muses on a perfect world that – who knows? – may be possible still, if only the Law would allow for it:

“No killed Jews and no hurt coloured people. No war and no hunger in the world. And, finally, Ludie Freeman would be alive.”

The very ending of the novel is as enigmatic as the rest of it. John Henry has died suddenly and horribly, from an attack of meningitis: this is related so directly, and so casually, that it is brutal. Frankie is now Frances, older and more mature, no longer yearning for a fluidity that the Law will not allow. The final paragraph seems charged with meaning:

Frances turned back to the window. It was almost five o’clock and the geranium glow had faded from the sky. The last pale colours were crushed and cold on the horizon. Dark, when it came, would come on quickly, as it does in wintertime. “I am simply mad about – “ But the sentence was left unfinished for the hush was shattered when, with an instant shock of happiness, she heard the ringing of the bell.

The sentence, like so much else in the novel, is left unfinished, and we don’t know what it is she is “mad” about – or, indeed, whether her “being mad” refers to her loving something, or being angry with something. Neither is it explained what the bell signifies at the end. It’s possibly just someone at the door. For, after all, what else can it be?

This is a novel I shall be returning to.