Monday, September 14, 2009

Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors.

I've completely forsaken this blog. It's sad. To tide you (all 10 of you) over until my next post, an excerpt from this interesting article (Redactor Agonistes By DANIEL MENAKER):

3. Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors. And it should be -- at least when it is unaccompanied by a broader, more popular sensibility it should be. When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public. I have this completely unfounded theory that there are a million very good -- engaged, smart, enthusiastic -- generalist readers in America. There are five hundred thousand extremely good such readers. There are two hundred and fifty thousand excellent readers. There are a hundred and twenty-five thousand alert, active, demanding, well-educated (sometimes self-well-educated), and thoughtful -- that is, literarily superb -- readers in America. More than half of those people will happen not to have the time or taste for the book you are publishing. So, if these numbers are anything remotely like plausible, refined taste, no matter how interesting it may be, will limit your success as an acquiring editor. It's not enough for you to be willing to publish "The Long Sad Summer of Our Hot Forsaken Love," by Lachryma Duct, or "Nuke Anbar Province, and I Mean Now!," by Genralissimo Macho Picchu -- you have to actually like them, or somehow make yourself like them, or at least make yourself believe that you like them, in order to be able to see them through the publishing process.

Friday, July 31, 2009

April Wheeler and Tessie Hutchinson

Read Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" HERE.

I'm the internet's least consistent blogger. Now that I've gotten that out of the way, on to this post!

Revolutionary Road spoiler alerts ahead!

Almost immediately in both Revolutionary Road and "The Lottery", the reader realizes she's entered a world populated by characters wrestling indoctrinations, by people timid but eager to slough the burden of dated, sometimes dangerous, groupthink.

In Revolutionary Road, a suburban complicity, a "tacit agreement to live in a total state of self-deception" is quickly established, especially amongst the four characters, young married couples The Wheelers and The Campbells, struggling hardest to imagine themselves as separate from the environment that defines them, "as members of an embattled, dwindling intellectual underground", "painfully alive in a drugged and dying culture". The novel opens to reveal a changing town, consolidated and newly industrialized, and a group of culturally aware young adults, The Laurel Players, to which The Wheelers and The Campbells belong, but with which they refuse to be lastingly associated. With the lips of this chasm
, one separating traditional expectations from new sensibilities, The Wheelers and Campbells flirt cautiously; still bound by the customs and proprieties of the community they resent, the young revolutionaries find solace in only the smallest, most private rebellions.

Similarly, in "The Lottery", a village of people governed by habit are introduced. The villagers gather on a particular day, what the reader quickly gathers is an annual tradition, every year "of course", and fall into place almost instinctively, while we adjust our feet to their rhythm, to conduct the eponymous lottery.

Like The Wheelers and Campbells of Revolutionary Road, there are those among the villagers prepared to quietly question the status quo.

"They do say," Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, "that over in the north village they're talking of giving up the lottery."

Old Man Warner snorted. "Pack of crazy fools," he said. "Listening to the young folks, nothing's good enough for them. Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about 'Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.' First thing you know, we'd all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There's always been a lottery," he added petulantly. "Bad enough to see young Joe Summers up there joking with everybody."

In both stories it is made clear, even before any consequences are explicitly defined, that dissenters will not have an easy time publicly rejecting accepted norms - which brings me to April Wheeler and Tessie Hutchinson: two women who meet tragic ends after (bravely? foolishly?) deciding to act against expectations. Each woman steps beyond her role as wife, mother, woman and pays for these usurpations with her life.

April Wheeler, wife of Frank Wheeler, decides, against her husband's will, in a defiant "denial of womanhood" to abort the couple's third child, because the pregnancy hinders The Wheelers' plan to abandon suburbia in favor of Europe, the universal panacea of unsatisfied Americans in the world of Revolutionary Road, and because she realizes, from her end at least, that her marriage is truly loveless. Tessie Hutchinson, wife of Bill Hutchinson, decides to make a spectacle of herself before her entire village, by protesting the lottery's proceedings, which, as she is promptly reminded, is not how things work.

"Be a good sport, Tessie." Mrs. Delacroix called, and Mrs. Graves said, "All of us took the same chance."

"Shut up, Tessie," Bill Hutchinson said.

For her noncooperation, Tessie wins the lottery... whose prize is death by stoning. The morality of this (centuries old?) practice is as resolute as is it horrific and archaic. No, the lottery isn't fixed - and Tessie is not chosen by any artful design of her peers, but her punishment, if judged against the expectations of the world she inhabits, is fitting. April too dies at the end of Revolutionary Road, due to complications of her the late term abortion she secretly performs on herself. And the story couldn't have ended (as successfully) any other way. The message is that women who step out of traditional roles are exposing themselves to criticism, risking social isolation, and in Revolutionary Road (1961) and "The Lottery" (1946), committing a most literal form of self-sabotage. It's important to include that, while ironic, and in the case of "The Lottery" allegorical, both of these stories provide valuable commentary on and insight into not only the historical roles of women, but the unattainable standards and unbearable pressures associated with attempting to shed blindly accepted traditions.

Despite all of their protestations and aspirations to conquer the depths by which they're swallowed, The Wheelers, Campbells, and Hutchinsons are very much defined by, and in some cases, content to behave within (or afraid or unable to disobey) the limits assigned them.

Watch a short film adaptation of The Lottery and the trailer for the Revolutionary Road feature film below (I've got to see this movie eventually!):

My sole issue with Revolutionary Road

I loved Revolutionary Road, have had the paperback for 6 months and completely destroyed it; it's been written in, dog-eared, ripped, wrinkled, taped, and devoured. I'm not even the 1000th person to believe this, I'm sure, but, Richard Yates created a masterpiece - and Tennessee Williams agreed, according to his quote on the book's back cover.

In my blog header, I announced that I'm making a(n independent! thanks FAFSA!) study of great writing in my hopes of becoming a great writer. What I can't decide, though, is if that means I'll be focusing more on the matter of the things I read, or the manner in which they're written - if it makes ANY sense to separate the two. Most of the things I have to say about Revolutionary Road deal with themes, character development, correlations I discover between elements of the novel and other things I've read, etc - and very few with the intricacies of Yates' masterful prose.

I know I like the book and there's no doubt that it's beautifully and expertly written, but it's proving difficult to dissect and understand (mechanically?) WHY I enjoy this book as much as I do. Perhaps, I've taken the J.V. Cunningham quote (also in the blog banner) too literally. Yates isn't given to syntactical or descriptive indulgences, and if I had breezed through the novel, I may have even thought that Revolutionary Road was written plainly or that it read coldly - and I would have been wrong.

I could probably fill a month's worth of posts with the things I liked about Yates' writing (have I just contradicted myself?): the anthropomorphic descriptions of cars in the first chapter - "foolishly misplaced", "unnecessarily wide" that "crawled apologetically" to their destinations - illuminating character experiences, the story's setting paralleling character developments, synesthetic descriptions and sense triggers - the "yellow smell" of sawdust causing Frank to recall the humiliation of his father's scolding, the "bright yellow pain of [Frank's] real awakening" -, the use of questions and indirect discourse to create group identities, highlight character conflicts, and act as a Greek chorus or supplementary narrator. And I could go on and on and on. And will in future posts.

But this post is about the one thing, the sole thing, about that troubled me: Yates' tendency to state, explicitly, through dialogue or narrator(/author?) interpretations, the significance of his own devices, symbols, themes, etc. At first, this absolutely thrilled me! I'd jot down a note, and pages, sometimes paragraphs or even lines later, there would be my note in the novel's very text (of course, stated infinitely more succinctly and eloquently). It assured me I was reading the book the right way - whatever that means. If I came to the same conclusions as the book's author/narrator, my reading was on the right track... no problems, right? RIGHT?

I thought so the first two or three times it happened and resisted becoming alarmed until the third to last chapter, page 320, where I scratched in the margins, and to my surprise - angrily, DO I LOVE OR HATE YATES' STATING HIS DEVICES THE WAY HE DOES?

Hate??? Surely, I couldn't HATE anything about Revolutionary Road. Could I? Well, that's what I wrote. And here is the sentence that prompted my marginal scribblings:

Then you discovered you were working at life the way the Laurel Players worked at The Petrified Forest, or the way Steve Kovick worked at his drums - earnest and sloppy and full of pretension and all wrong;...

Maybe it's because it reminds me of what I hated most about certain academic writing - the horrid and forced repetition, the restating of the thesis - which always felt patronizing. Can we not assume the readers of our essays (most likely our teachers or professors) get the gist of the thing the first time around, or the second? Must we subject ourselves and our audience to a superficial rewording of the obviously and already stated? Now, I'm 100% sure this is not what Yates is doing, but flashbacks from my brushes with academia (Full Disclosure: I've left two colleges so far and am headed for a third, Shimer, in the Spring) sprang forward after my ninth and and tenth happenings upon these moments in Revolutionary Road.

The first instance occurred on page 45 - here, April Wheeler has just cut the grass while Frank was sleeping and hung-over from drinking the night after an argument between them:

Everything about her seemed determined to prove, with a new, flat-footed emphasis, that a sensible middle-class housewife was all she had ever wanted to be and that all she had ever wanted to love was a husband who would get out and cut the grass once in a while, instead of sleeping all day.

Because earlier in the book, it's made clear that April has no interest in being a "sensible middle-class housewife" and, in fact, feels "trapped" by her environment, I made this note: ex post facto modification of expectations, to minimize failures – also in this case to make Frank feel the full magnitude of her disappointment in his shortcomings. I'm not embarrassed to say that I was proud of myself for having come up with and noticed this, and more for fitting it into the margin legibly. Imagine how impressed with myself I was when I read this on page 54, a mere 9 pages later: "[Frank] laboriously pried the stone out again and began hacking at the root."

HACKING AT THE ROOT???? (Frank is literally hacking at a root here to make way for a stone path he's installing on his property.) Well, that kind of sounds like moving the goal posts, which parallels that note I just took. Hmmmm, I may be on to something.

To confirm my suspicions that I was, indeed, the most brilliant reader of any novel of all time EVER, this on page 55: " now [Frank's] mind had mercifully amended the facts."

MERCIFULLY AMENDED THE FACTS!???! Exactly! Wow, this Yates guy really has the whole thing figured out!

Honestly, I think this post has helped me come to terms with what was troubling me. My other examples of this, and there are at least a dozen others, are pleasant, and reassuring (I may give them a separate post). I often feel like I'm reading in some isolated wilderness or vacuum - and that I'm posting my thoughts into the infinite void that is the internet - so for Yates to give me a little wink now and then is .... well... it's awesome!

And I'm vaguely aware that I'm probably inventing this entire phenomenon, so if that's the case, feel free to let me know in the comments.
(or that there is a name for what I've written about - echoes, parallels... something.)

We all need a little literary therapy... occasionally. This blog can be mine.

In other news, it's probably time I find a book club. Until I'm back in school, it's the waiting game (and blog posting game) for me.

I'll break up the Revolutionary Road stuff with thoughts on Wilfrid Sheed's Max Jamison, Montaigne's Essays, a few short stories by Black authors from Black Voices: An Anthology of Afro-American Literature, African-American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology, and The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, and Sherwood Anderson's Winseburg, Ohio.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

"jolts me out of the present, for just a moment"

In Amateur Reader's most recent post at Wuthering Expectations, he writes of a single sentence in George Eliot's Silas Marner that "jolts [him] out of the present, for just a moment."

Such sentences exist also in Revolutionary Road. The opening lines of Part 2:

There now began a time of such joyous derangement, of such exultant carelessness, that Frank Wheeler could never afterwards remember how long it lasted. It could have been a week or two weeks or more before his life began to come into focus, with its customary concern for the passage of time and its anxious need to measure and apportion it; and by then, looking back, he was unable to tell how long it had been otherwise.

Until this point, the narrative relies on events recounted chronologically by a third-person narrator, interspersed with illuminating character histories occurring before the action of the novel takes place. In the two above sentences, "afterwards" and "looking back" jolt me out of the present.

This is the first time in the book the prospect of any future for The Wheelers is made tangible, though Yates doesn't reveal whether Frank is "looking back" on this moment from Paris - or trapped, still, in his house on Revolutionary Road. Even without this disclosure, Yates' measured inclusion of "afterwards" and "looking back" means that Frank persists at least long enough to have forgotten how long the intoxication caused by the mere IDEA of Paris lasted.

Revolutionary Road's characters are given to extended hypotheticals: planning trips that may never happen, imagining lives that may never exist, pining for, fictionalizing, and romanticizing their pasts, insinuating themselves into superior peer groups... most of their vagaries impotent. This, coupled with a looming sense of menace, a "virus of calamity" just waiting to be consummated, provide no guarantee of the characters' survival, emotional or otherwise.

I was THRILLED, upon reading these two sentences, to find that Frank makes it to the future! AND remains lucid!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nabokov on The Writing Reader vs. The Reading Writer (sort of)

Again, Vladimir Nabokov expresses my sentiments better than I ever could (though it's ironic I'm finding so much enjoyment in the articulation of my thoughts in his words, as just after the passage below, Nabokov writes, "minor readers like to recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise" - to which I must reply, in the words of Marianne Moore, "I’ve always felt that if a thing has been said in the very best way, how can you say it better?"):

"Time and space, the colors of the seasons, the movements of muscles and minds, all these are for writers of genius (as far as we can guess and I trust we guess right) not traditional notions which may be borrowed from the circulating library of public truths but a series of unique surprises which master artists have learned to express in their own unique way. To minor authors is left the ornamentation of the commonplace: these do not bother about any reinventing of the world; they merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction."

I'd tried to write something to this effect last month, and naturally, Nabokov's facility of thought and expression eclipses my fumbling, groping, sometimes fatuous ramblings. Nabokov is Nabokov for a reason.

Also, this from Elizabeth Bishop, to make us all feel more foolish:
“I do not understand the nature of the satisfaction a completely accurate description or imitation of anything at all can give, but apparently in order to produce it the description or imitation must be brief, or compact, and have at least the effect of being spontaneous.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Nabokov on Macro and Micro Reading

I'm aware that though I arrive at my many made-up terms independently, the concepts they attempt to describe have existed for decades (centuries?).

Here's Vladimir Nabokov (from the essay in the post below, "Good Readers and Good Writers") on what I call macro and micro reading:

"In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected."

I agree! But this has never stopped me from formulating a (hypo)thesis about a book 13 pages in. It has prevented my posting about books before I read and reread them obsessively.

My mom sees I'm reading Revolutionary Road, the book open to a page littered with marginal scribblings (I'm a carnal, rather than a courtly lover of books). Then: Haven't you already read that, Becky? Of course I have! But now I'm READING it.

Again, Nabokov understands my actions and motives better than I or my mother - even after I try, futilely, to explain them:

"Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation."


There will be more substantive posts soon, though the beautiful Chicago summer slyly hints to me that "there are times when one is not in a disposition thoroughly to relish good writing."
(via Laudator Temporis Acti - from Charles Lamb in a 1796 letter to Coleridge)

I've not yet been afflicted with that disposition, but it's early in the season.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Am I the only person excited about the new Google Books features?

This is what I'm reading:
Nabokov's "Good Readers and Good Writers" from Lectures on Literature.
(added the essay to my short list after THIS entry @ Wisdom of the West)

Feel free to read along!

More info on Google Books updates HERE, HERE, and HERE.

The new features include embedding (see above), a more comprehensive search engine (to locate text within books, and the books themselves), more intuitive navigation, and a sleeker interface.

I, personally, LOVE the changes.

Also, Google Books has reached a landmark legal settlement allowing the service to provide online access to (potentially) millions more books than it previously could!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Self-Deprecation + Blogging?

I've convinced a few people I know to take a look at this book blog of mine, and some short stories I've written, and "self-deprecation" came up more than once. I apparently think more meanly of my (slender?) skills in fiction writing than do my friends and family... not that I don't value their opinions.... That said, I won't be posting my prose here in the foreseeable future.

Self-deprecation can be tolerable if drenched in irony - and through this exercise, I've (again) discovered that conversely, if coming from a place of true uncertainly, self-deprecation can be uncomfortable( and ANNOYING!) to endure.

There is, unfortunately, little affliction of false modesty when I say I'm daunted by (and in awe of) the work and my readings of great novelists. I don't write these things with any latent assurance that I may one day accomplish that which now seems so beyond what I know of my talents. Perhaps this has been my learning to keep these doubts to myself.

I will have been blogging here for four months by late June and am still grappling with and groping for the right tone. The issue is, as things now stand, I have no other outlet to express or exorcise my thoughts, feelings, fears, and opinions about the things I read and write.

This passage from Nabokov's "Good Readers and Good Writers" (Lectures on Literature) better articulates one aspect of my fear of insipidity (it has many facets):
Time and space, the colors of the seasons, the movements of muscles and minds, all these are for writers of genius (as far as we can guess and I trust we guess right) not traditional notions which may be borrowed from the circulating library of public truths but a series of unique surprises which master artists have learned to express in their own unique way. To minor authors is left the ornamentation of the commonplace: these do not bother about any reinventing of the world; they merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction. The various combinations these minor authors are able to produce within these set limits may be quite amusing in a mild ephemeral way because minor readers like to recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise. But the real writer, the fellow who sends planets spinning and models a man asleep and eagerly tampers with the sleeper’s rib, that kind of author has no given values at his disposal: he must create them himself. The art of writing is a very futile business if it does not imply first of all the art of seeing the world as the potentiality of fiction.

That covers what could excite or sedate upon a macro-reading... Then there is the matter of writing WELL. This from a girl who feels her writing hasn't matured since she was 17 years old, when it was still novel and impressive.

I'll be back to writing about reading in no time.... so ignore my venting. No comments on this one because I don't really want to know what anyone thinks of this rant - in all its sincere, more than likely inappropriate disclosure.

Unrelated: I may be developing something of an affinity for Yates' work.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


There seems to be some occult providence dictating the things I happen to read. What other explanation could there be for a girl who makes reading lists, never abides them, yet constantly stumbles upon prose inexplicably supplementary to what she has last read?

While reading an article on Gawker today about shady and hastily assembled Craigslist Writing employment postings, I came across a blind link under this user comment: "Gosh, this is where we're heading, huh? Everyone should read this, then". I followed the blind link to what I quickly discovered was "Builders" from The Collected Short Stories of Richard Yates. Naturally, because I've been reading and enjoying Yates' Revolutionary Road, I dove into "Builders" - and in it I discovered familiar themes, discussions of which I will save for my posts about Revolutionary Road.

What struck me most was the story's male protagonist - and how, with all his misguided aggression toward his well-meaning wife, I could end the story not hating the character. I feel similarly about Revolutionary Road's Frank Wheeler. And here's why:

Just as Frank Wheeler resents in his wife the recognition of his own weaknesses, (the "suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself"), we as readers of Yates' work often find his characters repulsive because they amplify flaws we abhor in ourselves. From what I can tell, Yates' characters have a tendency to spin in the mud; in both stories of his I've read, the reader jumps into a mild hell in media res with characters who loathe themselves and their insignificance as much as we pity them for their lack of progress.

Bob Prentice in "Builders" models his life after and measures his talents and evolution as a writer against Hemingway. When Prentice is conned, his shame is only magnified by his realization that "Ernest Hemingway could never in his life have known... [his] own sense of being a fool." And he was serious.

I'm 22-years-old (the same age as Prentice in "Builders") and understand having idols and feeling inadequate. But seeing these perceived failings in Bob Prentice and Frank Wheeler makes them seem hilarious and trivial. These yard sticks that exist only in our own minds, to which we hold ourselves strictly accountable - become prohibitive neuroses - and frankly, it's hard to witness in others, even if the others are fictional.

So when a stumped Prentice, struggling with writer's block, reacts to his wife's suggestion that he stop trying so hard to be "literary" and "think of Irving Berlin" by saying he'd "give her Irving Berlin right in the mouth in about a minute, if she didn't lay off [him] and mind her own goddamn business," the feminist in me wants to continue the story resolved to dislike Bob Prentice - but the human in me can relate to misplaced anger and aggression, and especially hypersensitivity on the matter of others' opinions of my writing.

I'm finding it impossible to hate Yates' impossible characters, in short.

Update: On the Chicago Reader's Lit & Lectures homepage today, an article originally published by the paper in November 2003 was featured, written by J.R. Jones detailing his intimate history with Richard Yates and his interview for Blake Bailey's A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Works of Richard Yates. In the article is this quote: "...[Yates] could be disarmingly candid and grimly funny, especially regarding himself, and the compassion for life’s losers that made his stories heartbreaking was evident every time he spoke." Sounds about right.

Revolutionary Road posts up next....

Saturday, June 6, 2009

"suffer[ing] from a terrible inertia"

I've been listening to New Yorker Fiction Podcasts, first selecting those whose descriptions contain names I recognize. Yesterday, I downloaded Aleksandar Hemon's discussion of Bernard Malamud’s “A Summer’s Reading.”

I've met Hemon twice - both times in Chicago, the first when I was 17 and had just finished Nowhere Man, at a local reading and discussion of the book. We crossed paths again the next year at the 2005 Chicago Public Library Carl Sandburg Awards Dinner honoring John Updike (who I also met that night. He was gracious and signed not only the two-volume Rabbit series every attendee received, but the 3 other books of his I'd brought along; I later discovered my actions were inconsiderate and in terrible taste, but I had NO IDEA at the time and was simply thrilled to be in Updike's presence. Though, having reread the Rabbit, Run more recently, I've found my tastes quite changed.... ).

I was at the dinner with a friend, thanks to a kind benefactor, who understood two bright-eyed 18-year-olds with literary aspirations could have never afforded the night's price. She spotted Hemon before I did and crossed the room to accost him in the most untoward fashion. I, of course, followed, beaming. To our surprise and elation, he not only remembered meeting us both the previous year at his reading, but recalled our names.

Yesterday, as I listened to Hemon's discussion of Malamud's "A Summer's Reading", Deborah Treisman's description of the short story's protagonist as a young man who "seems to suffer from a terrible inertia" left me with a pang of guilt. Because of the timing, my present circumstances(, and youthful egotism?), and our brief (and probably, in my mind, exaggerated) history, my mind was convinced Hemon's (and Treisman's) words were a direct indictment of idleness.

I am moved to action.

Sunday, May 31, 2009


Do you ever get the feeling you're reading far too aggressively? So aggressively your collected notes seems the length of a Bible? So aggressively you wonder if you'll ever finish?

As I comb through Revolutionary Road again, I continue to happen upon things I at first missed. I can't say whether my reading has been a journey through a mine field or treasure trove - either way, I tread attentively, so as not to, at my peril or fortune, overlook anything of great consequence.

That's where I am.... so expect an influx of posts this week. THERE'S SO MUCH TO SAY.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


Forgive me, blog, for I have lapsed. It has been sixteen days since my last post, but presently I will be back with MANY things to say about Revolutionary Road, Max Jamison and all I've read during the last two and a half weeks.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009


The fear of writing!

Do first drafts always read like excerpts from The Young Visiters? Or is it just me?

I'm exaggerating, but by how much I'm afraid I can't yet tell.

read The Young Visiters by 9-year-old Daisy Ashford here

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The writing reader vs. The reading writer

I'm stuck. For now, I'm a writing reader. I read great writing and write (here) about what I feel makes each piece great - in hopes that these studies will (soon) make me a reading writer, someone who can take what she has observed and apply it to her own work.

If the writer is an artist, the writing reader draws from sight, from a model... and I'm still studying anatomy, trying to locate the bone and muscle structures under the flesh of the thing. The masters have the biology internalized and have moved forward to establish unique styles. Master writing readers can each interpret the same model brilliantly, but the resulting works remain distinctive to each writing reader's own hand.

The reading writer draws from her imagination. She may refer to the rudiments of form when conceiving a work, and her art remains true to life, but is based on no one model. Her subjects are fictional.

I'm struggling to find the point where figure drawing, portrait painting, interpretation end - and illustration, conception, TRUE creation begin.

Analysis and observation are fine (and very instructing) for now. But I'm a fiction writer at heart.

Literary Present Tense

Does anyone else in the world have TENSE ISSUES????

As I reread some of my posts - some from as recently as yesterday - I realize that the tense issues I've always noticed in my writing are, when I don't take care to curb them, as prevalent as they ever were.

This 'literary present tense' doesn't come naturally to me.


...So if you're reading this blog, try to overlook whatever inconsistencies in tense you may encounter. I'm *fixing* them now.

"It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present."
Edith 'Little Edie' Bouvier Beale
Grey Gardens

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The absence of men in Kristin Hunter's An Interesting Social Study

Read An Interesting Social Study HERE and Susan Glaspell's Trifles HERE.

"I know how things can be--for women. ...We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things--it's all just a different kind of the same thing."
--from Trifles by Susan Glaspell (1916)

There are only three characters in Kristin Hunter's short story - a young, African-American woman, "the new resident", approximately 30 years old, and two older Caucasian women, Mrs. Powell and Corinna - and this story of learned acceptance over evening drinks would be complicated in the presence of men.

While talking on an open porch on the mid-1960s Cape May shore, the new and old residents find common ground and can judge each other (or learn not to) more accurately once they discover they're not so different.

Corinna mentions to the new resident that when she “was growing up, girls weren’t supposed to train for careers. [They] went to school to become young ladies. The schools [she] went to, National Cathedral and Finch, were mostly finishing schools.” Upon reflection, the new resident, who had completed her undergraduate studies at Spelman, a Historically Black University for Women, realizes Spelman is little more than the same, all three with their weekly tea parties and frivolous social engagements. The new resident, in disclosing her Bryn Mawr graduate studies, also gains the respect of Mrs. Powell who "went to Spence" and doesn't think anyone learned "a damn thing in those young-lady schools, especially in the South".

It's relatively simple for the three women to overlook their separating circumstances and find commonality, but among men, the new resident's approval might not have been as easily earned. Though the three women are divided (superficially) by class, race, wealth, and age, they're still, in a sense among their peers.
The new resident said softly, almost to herself, “I wanted a quiet place to work on my thesis this summer. That’s why I picked Cape May. Besides, I heard it was a pretty town.”

“Well, you came to the right place if you wanted quiet,” Mrs. Powell said, pouring herself another double slug of whiskey. “This town is so damn quiet it gets my nerves sometimes.”
In Susan Glaspell's 1916 drama, Trifles, a woman is suspected of killing her husband - and when two female neighbors accompany officials to the home in search of proof, the two find all they need: proof that the suspect had been oppressed and emotionally abused by her husband (manifested in erratic sewing, a canary with a snapped neck, the cessation of the woman's singing, for which she had once been known in the community). For this, they suppress the evidence against her, secretly repairing her stitchwork and stealing the canary's corpse, pardoning her crime because they, a jury of her peers, understand the stagnant oppression, the "stillness" she must have had to endure.

Similarly, the three women on the porch at Cape May during that mid-1960s summer, "a strong tide seem[ing] to have scattered the varicolored bodies of bathers as randomly as shells," couldn't possibly condemn one another for being of a different race, or for the sins of their forefathers. They find in each other friendship, understanding, hope - understandings that in the presence of men, would have been more difficult to achieve.

...And male characters would have elongated and complicated the fairly simple narrative. Its 8 pages could have easily become a novel with the hurdles the women would have had to overcome in reaching the same end.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

An Interesting Social Study by Kristin Hunter

This is Becca's Book Blog's 29th post - but only its 2nd concerning a Black author, its 8th concerning the work of female authors... which is a shame - as I'm a young, Black woman.

I'm now making a point to write about Black and female authors - with an emphasis on the intersection of the two conditions - a space in which I reside, happily.

First is a short story published in 1967 by Kristin Hunter, "An Interesting Social Study". I couldn't find the story reproduced ANYWHERE online, so I've typed and posted it on an auxiliary blog started for this very purpose.

Read An Interesting Social Study HERE.

A micro-reading of An Interesting Social Study may turn up more than a few issues... the overuse of adjectives and adverbs and prosaic repetition of dialogue structures ("she said", "she inquired", et al, et al), but besides, there is much to love in Kristin Hunter's story of an evening drink between old and new acquaintances on a porch in a 1960's Jersey Shore town, Cape May.

The story's young female protagonist is never named, only referred to as "the new resident", and is the only character whose thoughts are explicitly revealed to the reader. There are two other characters: Mrs. Powell, who is quickly established as the director of the story's coming action, whose "tone less of invitation than command" is not to be refuted, whose invitations are so coveted as to resemble "the instant fulfillment of a wish in childhood", whose "booming voice of authority" delivers "incontrovertible orders" to all around her. And her longtime friend Corinna who, by Mrs. Powell's declaration is "dumb", a "one hundred per cent fool", and who "accepted Mrs. Powell’s tyranny, as if [it] were divinely ordained circumstance."

What isn't immediately obvious is that Mrs. Powell and Corinna are White and the new resident is Black. The initial physical descriptions of Mrs. Powell and Corinna are as follows:

[Mrs. Powell was] an unusually tall and bony woman with a magnificently lined face which depicted, clearly as a graph, a mixed history of pleasure and pain...

[Corinna] was a plump woman of vague shape and features, with wispy dyed-red hair; like her hostess, near sixty; and dressed, like her, for a city luncheon, in a silk suit, polished straw hat, and quantities of pearls. Except that Mrs. Powell's hair was uncompromisingly short and gray, and her pearls were real.

Corinna refers to local blue collar workers as "colored" early in the story, which was not cause for alarm in 1967, when An Interesting Social Study was published, but it's clear that her referral establishes "colored" as other. The new resident, once she's sufficiently inebriated by Mrs. Powell, reveals that she'd done her undergraduate studies at Spelman College - a Historically Black Women's College. When the races of the women become apparent, the story finds its footing.

The setting, Cape May in summer, and its signs of social progression, not unlike in Yates' Revolutionary Road, mirrors the reluctantly changing attitudes of its inhabitants. In Revolutionary Road, "three swollen villages had lately been merged by a wide and clamorous highway called Route Twelve" - and along this new highway, commercial properties, "KING KONE, MOBILGAS, SHOPORAMA, EAT," spring up - all while the sly elitism of young, suburban families prompt resentment toward any lingering signs of what was once an uncouth rural town. Similarly, in An Interesting Social Study, both Cape May's new and old residents can feel a shift in the town's culture:
...There was no longer any clear pattern of segregation on Cape May’s beaches. A strong tide seemed to have scattered the varicolored bodies of bathers as randomly as shells. But last night she had noticed the stately old hotels floating at the edge of the water like giant ghost ships, empty, yet lit from stem to stern. They had given her an eerie feeling, and she had turned her back on the ocean wind and hurried home, shivering.
The tide of change brings integration to the historically relaxed, carefree shore town, and also, by Mrs. Powell's admission had divide it into "'two towns... the old summer people, and the new summer people. The old people... kind of wooden-headed and slow, and it takes them along time to make up their minds about new thing." The old people like Cape May's old hotels, their ghostly, stately manner, leave the new resident unsettled - her first encounter with Mrs. Powell described by the narrator as awkward, stiff, uncomfortable... understandable as Mrs. Powell herself "looked monumental and splendid as the old beach front hotels, and as lonely." Lonely because Cape May's newer, younger residents seem "to be flocking to the ugly new nightclub down on the beach instead," - Mrs. Powell because her position of near omnipotence ("The new resident thought... Before this evening is over, you’ll know everything about me too. That’s probably why you invited me up here on your porch. You make it your business to know everything.... And I’ll bet you’re the one who tells all the other old people what to think. I’ll bet you run the whole town by yourself...") in Cape May is also one of isolation.

In this seaside town, these women, from different places, separated by decades, generations, are able to find common ground - each providing the other with what she seeks in her visit.

In this strangely colored twilight that falls on the southernmost point on the Jersey shore, the newest resident’s hands, as they caught the arms of the rocker were tinted a soft mauve, while the faces of the older women, who had already spent a month in the sun, were deeper variations of the same shade.
The new resident's studies to be a social worker lend themselves to aiding Mrs. Powell's blatant alcoholism, as Mrs. Powell herself suggests. More tangibly, the shells the new resident collected on the beach the day before the action of the story began are, at the end of the story, suggested as the antidote allowing Mrs. Powell's stagnant furnishings to more accurately reflect the town's spirit. We learn that Mrs. Powell was raised in the North (explaining her progressive attitude?), that she's the great-grand daughter of her state's most profitable slave owner and trader, the daughter of a state senator, "the most important lady in Cape May." But she plays down her own attributes, her wealth, her legacy "with a deprecating wave of hands".

We learn in Mrs. Powell's willful sloughing of legitimate claims of class, birth, and education that people, disparate in origins, can converge peacefully, meaningfully... An "old relic" and a "new resident" - Corrina, whose harmless ignorance foils Mrs. Powell's willingness to accept change - find one another, put history aside, and in a summer, on a porch, drunk, head together toward the future of their town.

I'm reminded of a recent post from Patrick Kurp's Anecdotal Evidence:

I’m rereading a favorite family history, Bowen’s Court (1942) by Elizabeth Bowen. As she chronicles the fortunes of one Anglo-Irish family, we slowly realize we are witnessing the fall of an entire civilization into modernity:

“And to what did our fine feelings, our regard for the arts, our intimacies, our inspiring conversations, our wish to be clear of the bonds of sex and class and nationality, our wish to try to be fair to everyone bring us? To 1939.”

In this case... To 1968.

Mrs. Powell's final dialogue to the new resident, the story's closing lines:

“I have a lot of interesting old relics around here, if you like history, and I’m the biggest old relic of them all. Although I don’t care much for history, myself.”

What a refreshing read! I have 4 anthologies of the best short stories and poems by Black Writers and look forward to enjoying them as much as I have Kristin Hunter's An Interesting Social Study.

But I plan to finish Revolutionary Road first!

Next Post: The absence of men in An Interesting Social Study

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Maidenhood vs. Motherhood vs. ... whatever other states a woman may inhabit =(

In this optical illusion - do you see a young woman or an old woman?

What happens to a girl when she becomes a wife and mother?

Something awful apparently... at least in the eyes of Frank Wheeler.

In keeping with my (hypo)thesis about Revolutionary Road - that "the book's characters seem to be reluctantly enduring the death of their idealism as they're bombarded with the realities of their lives" - it seems that Frank can't cope with his wife's diminishing maidenhood and dainty femininity.

As a younger man, one still frustrated at not having met the perfect "first-rate girl", Frank meets April Johnson, “the exceptionally first-rate girl whose shining hair and splendid legs had drawn him halfway across a roomful of strangers.” Later, after they're married with 2 children, Frank watches her on stage as “she moved with the shyly sensual grace of maidenhood; anyone happening to glance at Frank Wheeler, the round-faced, intelligent-looking young man who sat biting his fist in the last row of the audience, would have said he looked more like her suitor than her husband.” Because husbands CLEARLY don't think of their wives that way - it's implicit and ingrained in the world of Revolutionary Road.

“Nowhere in these plans had he foreseen the weight and shock of reality; nothing had warned him that he might be overwhelmed by the swaying, shining vision of a girl he hadn’t seen in years, a girl whose every glance and gesture could make his throat fill up with longing (“Wouldn’t you like to be loved by me?”), and that then before his very eyes she would dissolve and chance into the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself, a gaunt constricted woman whose red eyes flashed reproach, whose false smile in the curtain call was as homely as his own sore feet, his own damp climbing underwear and his own foul smell.”

When April's production fails miserably, Frank's image of her dissolves as well. She quickly degrades in his regard from a "shining vision of a girl" to a "graceless, suffering creature", a "gaunt constricted woman... homely". The "first-rate girl" is suddenly merely his wife and the mother of his two children - on stage in a terrible community theater troupe. Frank's stark dichotomy - this maiden vs. mother attitude is vile, but reading these sentiments at face value cheapens the book. It's easy, as a young female reader to be disgusted by this unfeeling binarism - but if I'd taken the easy route, I'd be missing Yates' larger intention.

There's a tone of resentment in the deflation of Frank's ideals of April - I think because in her commonness, in what he perceives as her failings, he sees his own reflected.

The standards to which she's held seem to be a bit rigid as well. She's described as being “a shade too heavy in the hips and thighs” after bearing two children and again as “a little too wide in the hips”. The interesting thing is that these assertions don't come from Frank or any other character in the story - they're the narrator's commentaries. But the narrator is not a character in the book - so to whom should these opinions be attributed? Obviously, they're meant to be ironic and illuminating - and they succeed.

But what does a woman become after she's far into motherhood? What if she's old and unmarried? What of her then?

Frank's own mother is described vaguely as "a pair of rimless spectacles, a hair net, and a timorous smear of lipstick.” Another older woman, Mrs. Givings is, as soon as she's characterized, immediately made ridiculous - her "cosmetics seemed always to have been applied in a frenzy of haste, of impatience to get the whole silly business over and done with, and she was constantly in motion, a trim, leather-skinned woman in her fifties...”.

Jane Austen, in all her infallibility, accurately portrays these female literary archetypes while allowing them to maintain some shred of humanity. Her Miss Bates, who was never asked to play the pianoforte (because who could think of homely, spinsterly, poor Miss Bates when Emma or Jane Fairfax were around?) still lives today in women like pop culture figure Susan Boyle. Austen takes the same ironic tone as Yates when she says that "it is only poverty that makes celibacy contemptible. A single woman of good fortune is always respectable." While ironic, both statements reflect the attitudes and opinions of the day.

In this optical illusion - do you see a young woman or an old woman?

This is all too "Virgin/Mother/Crone" for my taste.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Restless Young Men

“Weren’t the biographies of all great men filled with this same kind of youthful groping, this same kind of rebellion against their fathers and their fathers’ ways?”
--Revolutionary Road

Paul in Paul's Case by Willa Cather.
Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.
The Real Life Frank Abagnale Jr. (whose story was featured in the book and movie Catch Me If You Can).

All 3 restless young men fighting to escape their fathers' (men they at once admired and resented) curses of mediocrity nearly, or completely, achieve ruin in their own lives.

Cather's Paul steals money from his employer and flees to New York with dreams of a glamorous new life, surrounded by the arts - free of his middle-class existence and the "horrible yellow wallpaper" in his room. Similarly, Frank Abagnale Jr. runs away from home once his father's trouble with the IRS plunges his family into impecuniousness. He, like Paul, lies, cheats, and steals his way to wealth. From what I've read so far, Yates' Frank Wheeler has the same begrudging respect, coupled with disgust, for his father as do Paul and Abagnale - wondering "...who wanted to be a dopey salesman in the first place, acting like a big deal with a briefcase full of boring catalogues, talking about machines all day to a bunch of dumb executives with cigars?"

He as an adolescent also plans a trip - his on a freight train - to begin his own life: "[Frank] spent all his free time in a plan for riding rails to the West Coast. ...he had rehearsed many times the way he would handle himself." He steals his father's hat for his journey and stuffs it with newspapers so that it would fit his small head properly, just as Frank Abagnale Jr. borrowed behaviors and epigrams from his father and used them to his advantage.

These three characters all exhibit a restless, impatient quest toward manhood - but not just any state of manliness - one that would eclipse whatever claims to greatness their fathers' may have laid, taking from them the estimable, leaving behind the execrable.

In Revolutionary Road, it's made clear early in the book that Frank values masculinity, admiring "men who looked like they’d never been boys at all", posing to affect a more distinguished jawline, "the face he'd given himself in the mirror since boyhood and which no photograph had ever achieved", "saunter[ing] manfully" to his father's heavy briefcase as a child and "pretend[ing] it was his own". Abagnale's heroes are pilots, doctors, lawyers, James Bond, Paul's those great men of the stage - and each of these three young men pretended to their goals before they're old enough to achieve them.

Unfortunately, (100 year old spoiler alert!!!) Paul kills himself once he realizes he'll be returned to obscurity, Frank Abagnale Jr. is caught forging checks and imprisoned (though he eventually begins work as an FBI fraud specialist) and I don't yet know what comes of Frank Wheeler. I haven't finished the book.

There seems to be a recurring theme in literature (and movies) of Restless Young Men. Freud's Oedipus Complex, perhaps? Except without the creepy part about marrying one's own mother.... I'll keep a keen eye out as I continue Revolutionary Road.

TRIVIA - Leonardo DiCaprio played both Frank Abagnale Jr. AND Frank Wheeler in the film adaptations of Catch Me If You Can and Revolutionary Road. Coincidence? I think he has that earnest, Restless Young Man Look about him.

"We became drivers and garbage men, so that our children could become doctors and lawyers, so that our grandchildren could become artists and writers, so that our great grandchildren could become models and socialites."

Monday, April 27, 2009

"The finder of his theme will be at no loss for words."

The quote in the subject line is one of J.V. Cunningham's.

In Yates' Revolutionary Road, Cunningham's assertion is proven on every page and in every word. I can't say whether or not Yates had a difficult time writing his masterpiece, but nowhere in Revolutionary Road is his theme forgotten or absent, either from the writer's intention or the active reader's interpretation.

I've been doing far more reading than writing lately, (the only writing I've done has been on this and my other blogs) but when I (finally) decide to create, the instructions I've gleaned from all I've read will be invaluable.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Gus von A. - The Fallen Dandy

" 'You see, Aschenbach has always lived liked this' -- here the speaker closed the fingers of his left hand to a fist -- 'never like this'--and he let his open hand hang relaxed from the back of his chair. It was apt."

Thomas Mann, at the outset of his novella Death in Venice, takes great care to establish his protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach as a disciplined man and respected poet - only to have the character's admirable qualities, by the story's end, disintegrate - replaced by ruinous obsession and capricious, irresponsible whim. Though the tenets of dandyism (as defined by may not have been explicitly stated and assembled at the time of Death in Venice's publication, it is clear that Thomas Mann wrote Gus von A with strict parameters in mind so as to make his descent into chaos and madness that much more shocking than if such misfortune had befallen a more mediocre man. When evaluated against the 12 points of comparison outlined in 'The Anatomy of a Dandy', von Aschenbach's heights appear at their highest and his lows seem beneath what would be thought capable of such a man. The loss of his physical distinction, elegance, self-mastery, aplomb, independence, wit, skepticism, endearing egotism, reserve, discriminating taste, and caprice - all of the things that make a dandy a dandy - is disturbing for the reader to *witness*, to endure - and I believe this theme of humbling and self-destruction is a large part of why this story persists as a classic.

Let's start at the very beginning - a very good place to start:

“Dandyism is the result of an artistic temperament working upon a fine body within the wide limits of fashion.” - Max Beerbohm

By this definition, Gus von A was a textbook dandy: "The union of dry, conscientious officialdom and ardent, obscure impulse, produced an artist..."

1. Physical distinction

Dandyism can only be painted on a suitable canvas. It is impossible to cut a dandy figure without being tall, slender and handsome, or having at least one of those characteristics to a high degree while remaining at least average in the other two. Fred Astaire was neither tall nor handsome, but he was “so thin you could spit through him.”

Count D’Orsay, of course, had all three qualities to the highest degree.

“To appear well dressed, be skinny and tall.” — Mason

2. Elegance

Elegance, of course, as defined by the standards of a dandy’s particular era.

“[The dandy’s] independence, assurance, originality, self-control and refinement should all be visible in the cut of his clothes.” — Ellen Moers

Dandies must love contemporary costume, says Beerbohm, and their dress should be “free from folly or affectation.”

Gus von A's initial physical description is as follows: "somewhat below middle height, dark and smooth-shaven, with... his almost delicate figure... rimless gold spectacles... , aristocratically hooked nose... yet it was art, not the stern discipline of an active career, that had taken over the office of modeling these features." By the final pages of the story, von Aschenbach was sickly, "worn quite out and unnerved... his head burned, his body was wet with clammy sweat, he was plagued by intolerable thirst." There was no sign, physically, of the man with whom we first became acquainted.

On his boat ride to Venice, Gus von A encounters an old man he considers foolish in his attempts to mimic the look and mannerisms of youth ("Could they not see he was old, that he had no right to wear the clothes they wore or pretend to be one of them?"). This ridiculous old man in all his buffoonery becomes a foil for von Aschenbach's own conscious decision, once deluded by obsession with his young muse Tadzio, to don the facade of youth in his old age: "A delicate carmine glowed on his cheeks where the skin had been so brown and leathery. The dry, anæmic lips grew full, they turned the colour of ripe strawberries, the lines round eyes and mouth were treated with a facial cream and gave place to youthful bloom." Disregarding how ridiculous he must have looked with stark hair dye, his face covered and caked in rouge, Gus von A, by the story's end loses any claims he held on admirable physical distinction or elegance.

2 down. 10 to go.

3. Self-mastery

Barbey speaks of the dandy’s staunch determination to remain unmoved, while Baudelaire says that should a dandy suffer pain, he will “keep smiling.”

“Manage yourself well and you may manage all the world.” — Bulwer-Lytton

“Immense calm with your heart pounding.” — Noel Coward

4. Aplomb

While self-mastery is the internal practice of keeping emotions in check, aplomb is how it is expressed to the dandy’s audience.

“Dandyism introduces antique calm among our modern agitations.” — Barbey d’Aurevilly

Gus von A and the characters he as a writer created possessed " 'the conception of an intellectual and virginal manliness, which clenches its teeth and stands in modest defiance of the swords and spears that pierce its side.'... there was the aristocratic self-command that is eaten out within and for as long as it can conceals its biologic decline from the eyes of the world". Not unlike Elliot Templeton in Maugham's The Razor's Edge, who ignores his own imminent mortality in favor of honoring a party invitation, the dandy never betrays any sign of inner conflict - a tenet to which Gus von A at first adhered. He knew that "almost everything conspicuously great is great in despite: has come into being in defiance of affliction and pain; poverty, destitution, bodily weakness, vice, passion, and a thousand other obstructions. And that was more than observation—it was the fruit of experience, it was precisely the formula of his life and fame, it was the key to his work."

So bizarre, then, was his eventual loss of any sense of propriety or concept of how he would be perceived in his madness. Caught in what should have been embarrassing, reproachable situations, the new Aschenbach "remained there long, in utter drunkenness, powerless to tear himself away, blind to the danger of being caught in so mad an attitude." The power of intoxicating obsession over the learned life-long practice of self-mastery and aplomb becomes apparent in these words.

5. Independence

Ideally financial independence, but if the dandy is forced to work, a spirit of independence will be expressed through his work, as with Tom Wolfe. Independence — often to the point of aloofness — will also characterize the dandy’s dealings with the world.

“The epitome of selfish irresponsibility, he was ideally free of all human commitments that conflict with taste: passions, moralities, ambitions, politics or occupations.” — Moers

“Independence makes the dandy.” — Barbey d’Aurevilly

Gus von A was born rich, remained rich throughout life, lived by his pen and maintained independently wealthy until his death. He had no dependents and therefore no human commitments other than his own strict expectations of his life and career. Nothing to see here. 11/12 isn't bad lol.

6. Wit

Especially a paradoxical way of talking lightly of the serious and seriously of the light that carries philosophical implications.

(See Oscar Wilde, his characters such as Lord Henry and Lord Goring, and to a lesser degree every other notable dandy.)

7. A skeptical, world-weary, sophisticated, bored or blasé demeanor

“The dandy is blasé, or feigns to be.” — Baudelaire

“A spirit of gay misanthropy, a cynical, depreciating view of society.” — Lister

8. A self-mocking and ultimately endearing egotism

“Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself.” — Wilde, “The Ideal Husband”

9. Dignity/Reserve

Pelham keeps “the darker and stormier emotions” to himself — Bulwer-Lytton

“A flawless dandy, he would be annoyed if he were considered romantic.” — Oscar Wilde, “An Ideal Husband”

In the face of a Venitian cholera plague, one being hushed by police for the sake of tourism, Gus von A eschews all natural problem-solving and skepticism in favor of willful ignorance, so that he can extend his holiday and remain near Tadzio, his young muse.

He also begins to think and speak gravely of love, obsession, the nature of art and the artist, the lover and the loved, in grand lofty allusions to Phaedrus and Socrates. "Such were the devotee's thoughts, such the power of his emotions." Any poetic ability he'd once had for flitting lightly over such emotions was wiped away by madness.

"He trembled, he shrank, his will was steadfast to preserve and uphold his own god against this stranger who was sworn enemy to dignity and self-control. But.. his heart throbbed to the drums, his brain reeled, a blind rage seized him, a whirling lust... and in his very soul he tasted the bestial degradation of his fall." In a dream, his own insanity was made apparent.

10. Discriminating Taste

“To resist whatever may be suitable for the vulgar but is improper for the dandy.” — Moers

11. A renaissance man

“A complete gentleman, who, according to Sir Fopling, ought to dress well, dance well, fence well, have a genius for love letters, and an agreeable voice for a chamber.” — Etherege, quoted by Bulwer-Lytton in “Pelham”

Gus von A was powerless to resist the improper and vulgar once blinded by passion. "The presence of the youthful beauty that had bewitched him filled him with disgust of his own aging body; the sight of his own sharp features and grey hair plunged him in hopeless mortification; he made desperate efforts to recover the appearance and freshness of his youth". He began to wear bright clothes and ostentatious jewelry; his taste was lost to foolishness.

He remained enough of a gentleman outwardly - and the fury of his final work, inspired by Tadzio, seems to confirm that his talents for writing weren't damaged by his madness, so I don't think his status as a renaissance man was every in jeopardy. 10/12 isn't bad (lol).

12. Caprice

Because dandies are an enigma wrapped in a labyrinth, and because dandyism makes its own rules, the final quality is the ability to negate all the others.

For in the end there is not a code of dandyism, as Barbey writes. “If there were, anybody could be a dandy.”

The 12th tenet more or less nullifies my above arguments, but that's the beauty of the thing. Even for all his missteps, in the last line of Death in Venice, we realize that Gus von A's fans and admirers are completely oblivious and, (100 year old spoiler alert!) in death, he is restored to the position in which we first found him.

"And before nightfall a shocked and respectful world received the news of his decease."

His "preoccupation with [Tadzio's]form lead to intoxication and desire, they may lead the noblest among us to frightful emotional excesses, which his own stern cult of the beautiful would make him the first to condemn. So they too, they too, lead to the bottomless pit." Death in Venice remains so fascinating because of its protagonist's determination to ruin himself though every impulse advised against such lunacy.

Basically, if it could happen to him, the most disciplined and dandiest of dandies, it could happen to any among us.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Virginia Woolf's success in creating 'Modern Fiction'

Inspired by Amateur Reader's post - Herman Melville's Mardi was written by Herman Melville:

Read Virginia Woolf's essay Modern Fiction HERE, The Mark on the Wall HERE, and To The Lighthouse (Chapter 6 - Starting with the words "He was safe..." to end of chapter) HERE. Because To The Lighthouse is a novel, I figured it would make the most sense to tackle a representative except for readers not familiar with the book.

I love to read because the things I learn from books inform the choices I make when writing. A close reading of any great piece of literature can guide its reader through the author's processes and intentions, can influence (not define) an aspiring writer's style and motivate him or her to take care that each word tell. Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite authors for this reason. She not only provides the active reader stimulating and instructing fiction, but in her essay Modern Fiction, she outlines criteria by which modern fiction should be evaluated - and holds herself to her own standards. By her own definitions, Woolf creates, in varying degrees of success, modern fiction.

In 1921, Virginia Woolf's The Mark on the Wall was published, in 1925, her book The Common Reader, which contained Modern Fiction, and in 1927, To the Lighthouse. In this 6 year period we see Woolf's work progress from exemplary, but aimless, to challenging and purposeful - and have her own words as the bellwether by which to measure that progress. I consider these my formative literary years, and what better example
than Woolf for taking literary matters in one's own hands can a girl have!

In Modern Fiction, Woolf defines two types of fiction, that which is concerned with the body, and the most desirable - that which is concerned with the spirit. Novels concerned with the spirit, she claims, are "what it is we exact." If that is true, then we as readers get exactly what it is we exact from Woolf's To The Lighthouse - and while we come closer to the spirit, to "life" in The Mark on the Wall than in what Woolf terms as "materialist" fiction, the piece still does not satisfy the readers quest for "the essential thing" it is we search for in fiction, "whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality." For that reason, I believe Virginia Woolf truly becomes VIRGINIA WOOLF in To the Lighthouse - and in The Mark on the Wall, she is well on her way. Woolf assigns properties to what she considers fiction concerned with both the body and with the mind - and believes that "life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small." In that sense, both To The Light House and The Mark On The Wall contain some aspect of "life" by Woolf's own definition - but To The Lighthouse succeeds in adhering to more of the properties that readers now know to be hallmarks of Woolf's best work.

To The Lighthouse, the character Mr. Ramsay contemplates his place in the world while in real time observing his wife read to his son. In The Mark On The Wall, Woolf's speaker chronicles random thoughts while in real time looking at the titular mark on the wall. In exploring the thoughts of their respective speakers, both pieces capture the "myriad impressions" that Woolf claims "the mind receives" in Modern Fiction. However, these impressions are to an end in To The Light House, whereas in The Mark On The Wall they seem scattered, and to have no specific purpose.

In being concerned with the spirit, a piece of fiction must focus on the abstract rather than the concrete and in
The Mark On The Wall, the speaker's thoughts are centered on physical objects (trees, birds, wood); in To The Light House Mr. Ramsay's abstract thoughts are only spoken of in concrete terms to make tangible abstract concepts. Just as with the literal body and spirit, both can be perceived, but only the body physically.

To The Lighthouse, while it employs a stream of consciousness style is less self-concerned than The Mark On The Wall. Because The Mark On The Wall is written in first person, with phrases "I like," "I understand," "I should," "I feel," repeated as often as they are, the piece seems selfish and "never embraces or creates what is outside itself or beyond"; it has "the effect of something angular and isolated", all of which are qualities Woolf attributes to "materialist" fiction.

In both pieces, "emphasis is laid in unexpected places." Because Mr. Ramsay in
To The Lighthouse grapples with his position in his own life and family, this emphasis is in unexpected, yet logical places - always keeping in mind the book's overall aim and maintaining an "obedience to vision." Historical figures of questionable importance, how a dying soldier will be remembered, the alphabet used as a concrete analogy for Mr. Ramsay's quest through his own mind - these seemingly disparate mentions all converge to illuminate Mr. Ramsay's existential musings. The emphasis in To The Light House don't seem to achieve any greater purpose than to "record the atoms as they fall upon the mind... however disconnected and incoherent in appearance."

Like the works of the Russian artists Woolf praises as "saintly" in Modern Fiction,
To The Lighthouse appears "vague and inconclusive" only in that it asks many unanswered rhetorical questions. Similarly, Woolf states in her essay that "life presents question after question which must be left to sound on after the story is over". Mr. Ramsay's vacillating between a life dedicated to family and one to work constantly begs the question "Who shall blame him?" while suggesting his favoring the former. Of course, no one could blame a man for choosing his family over his work - though it's a question people struggle with every day.

The Mark On The Wall asks questions as well, but they are self-involved, have no larger implications beyond the story's speaker and give the reader no incentive to want to know their answers. They do not "endeavor to reach some goal worthy of the most exacting demands of the spirit".

To the Lighthouse is by Woolf's own definition a true work concerning the spirit in that it embodies "life" - which is what Woolf believes modern fiction should always endeavor to do. The Mark on the Wall was a valiant effort, but pales in comparison to Woolf's later work. In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf becomes VIRGINIA WOOLF.

*The Amateur Reader said this would be a tricky post and it WAS! I'm not even sure I'm saying everything I mean to say, but this is my first go at explaining an author's coming into her own. I may rehash this later with more textual examples from TTLH and TMOTW - because I only used quotes from Modern Fiction in the post above.

IN OTHER NEWS - tomorrow is Becca's Book Blog's

So far, So good!