Archive for the 'Criticism' Category


September 11, 2006

John Banville’s Shroud is a companion novel to Eclipse. Cass Cleave, playing a different kind of daughter in each, appears as a character in both novels.

Where Eclipse was an ethereal and slightly hysterical novel, Shroud is grim, dangerous and bleak.

Nothing better illustrates this than the overarching theme of dead bodies that is signified by the title. The shroud of Turin, where most of the novel is set, supposedly shows a ghostly image of Christ’s dead body. It is a persistent image of the man, and the novel is about (amongst other things) how we maintain our image for others, and the lengths we go to to secure a persistent image of ourselves.

The male protagonist, Axel Vander, is half-blind and half-lame, but also powerful and insightful at the same time. Earlier in his life he used his insight to write towering academic edifices and built on them a solid and masterful career as Professor Vander. Now, near the end of his life, he sees visions, ghostly and gruesome.

He sees himself as a dead albatross hung around his own neck; a rotting dead-weight, from which the flesh falls:

Lately I have begun to feel that I am falling off myself, that my suety old flesh is melting off my skeleton and soon will all be gone. I shall not mind; I shall be glad; I shall rise up then, bared of inessentials, all gleaming bone and siinew smooth as candle wax, new, unknown, my real self at last. (p8)

And in his passionate desire to get close to her, he sees the female protagonist, Cass Cleave, in the following terms:

…as we climbed the stairs I saw myself in my imagination stop and turn and take her in my irresistible grasp and rip apart her clothes to press the length of myself against her. Even her nakedness would not be enough, I would open up her flesh itself like a coat, unzip her from instep to sternum and climb bodily into her, feel her shocked heart gulp and skip, her lungs shuddering, clasp her blood-wet bones in my hands. (p107)

I have been struck, whilst reading this book, by Banville’s great lyricism and, in this case, his almost terminal abstractedness. These two extracts are fine examples of Banville’s descriptive talent. And yet… and yet. Too often, it’s not entirely clear what the characters are talking about, where they are, or even who they are. And I find this difficult – too difficult for the District Line, at least. The story jumps from the sticky closeness of events in Turin, to a more lightly related past in Germany and London, and back into the mad (and maddening) visions of the two narrators. And ultimately, although you are generally aware of the subject of the novel, the story escapes you a bit. If nothing else, reading Banville is good for building your vocabulary.

Some Vander/Cleave words, given to either of the narrators:

  • nescience = lack of knowledge, ignorance
  • plosive = of, relating to, or being a speech sound produced by complete closure of the oral passage and subsequent release accompanied by a burst of air, as in the sound (p) in pit or (d) in dog
  • moll = prostitute
  • goughing = ?
  • preciosities = extreme meticulousness or overrefinement, as in language, taste, or style
  • ephebe = a young man
  • squinnying = squint
  • fissile = capable of being split or divided; cleavable [clever John Banville!]
  • ormolu = gold or gold powder prepared for use in gilding, also to imitate gold
  • estamint = ?
  • instauration = renewal; restoration; renovation; repair
  • apocatastasis = the state of being restored or reestablished; restitution; also, the doctrine that Satan and all sinners will ultimately be restored to God
  • termagant = a violent, turbulent, or brawling woman
  • netsuke = (in Japanese art) a small figure of ivory, wood, metal, or ceramic, originally used as a buttonlike fixture on a man’s sash, from which small personal belongings were hung
  • integument = covering, coating, enclosure
  • bibelot = a small object of beauty, curiosity, or rarity
  • colleen = an Irish girl
  • boreal = of or pertaining to the north, or north wind
  • flapdoodle = nonsense, bosh
  • pococurantish = uncaring, apathetic
  • peccant = violating a rule, principle, or established practice
  • gonadolescent = ? (although I can guess)
  • berylline = transparent, transluscent, glassy
  • freshet = a sudden rise in the level of a stream, or a flood, caused by heavy rains or the rapid melting of snow and ice
  • bombasine = mourning material, with a warp of silk and a weft of worsted
  • gallimaufry = a hodgepodge, a jumble, a confused medley
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non-geeks look away

August 25, 2006

I’m not given to revealing the technical wizardry that goes into making this blog (mainly because everyone knows all about it) but I feel I must say something about WordPress.

This is because I have been reviewing the material on NTC, checking for little errors that can be cleaned up and ensuring that there’s a good mix of stuff on here (although I notice that I’m getting more book focused as time goes on). I’ve found one or two errors that are not of my own doing but are rather the fault of WordPress. The primary and most distressing problem being that pictures and photos in some posts are not appearing in the published blog, even though in the posting form everything seems to be as it should.

I already know WordPress to be a bit of bitch, quite frankly. I moved here from Blogger for the simple reason that I wanted to be able to categorise my posts, so that the archive of material was presented (essentially) thematically. Blogger only offered a monthly archive. Initially, I was impressed, especially with the way WordPress handled presentation by giving me some flexiblity about what was in the nav column but not letting me fiddle with the stylesheet. Blogger requires you to edit the stylesheet, if you want to get rid of those ‘Edit me’ links when you start, and that leads to all sorts of time wasted on moving things about and changing colours.

More recently, however, I’ve begun to be quite pissed off with WordPress. My main gripe against them is that they obviously deploy updates to their software code without really warning their users that the platform might be a bit flaky while they do so (or more flaky than usual, anyway). I know I am in a precarious situation here, seeing as how I am using their software and hosting facility free of charge, but my answer to that is ‘Thank God I didn’t pay for this!’

A list of common WordPress difficulties includes:

  • Spaces not appearing between words when you press the spacebar.
  • Line breaks being removed when you publish a post, so your paragraphs disappear.
  • The cursor randomly jumping around the input box while you’re typing, for no perceivable reason.
  • Not being able to delete text using either the delete or backspace keys on the keyboard. The only solution I’ve found is to highlight the text, do something else to it (e.g. italics), and then press delete. For some reason, that works.
  • Links not being saved even though you’ve tried three times.
  • Images being uploaded and not appearing in the published post. Also, images being uploaded at full size, but only being available as thumbnails for your post. [Update: OK so I found out on the help forum how to operate the image features, and now that I know how they work I think they are quite cool. But it wasn’t very obvious (perhaps because it’s a new sort of menu/control) and a little bit of contextual help would have gone a long way.]
  • A new draft post (of the same name) being saved when you click Save, in addition (we hope) to the post you’re working on.

And so on and so forth. Bad, bad software, which is sad as it’s so promising in many other ways.

I read somewhere that Blogger is planning an upgrade to their platform that will include better handling of layout and offer categorisation of material. I would then think about moving back to Blogger except that in the meantime someone from Japan has claimed the tammanycollege.blogspot address (with no evident connection to the word ‘tammany’ at least). C’est la pooh la vie. I’m starting to think about trying Typepad next… but I hope I won’t lose my loyal readership by moving around too much.

Saul Bellow, Augie March and me

August 16, 2006

Have finished reading Saul Bellow‘s 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March (TAOAM).

I have previously read the following novels by Saul Bellow, in this order:

  1. Seize the Day (1956)
  2. Humboldt’s Gift (1975)
  3. Herzog (1964)
  4. Henderson the Rain King (1959)
  5. More Die of Heartbreak (1987)
  6. Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970)
  7. Ravelstein (2000)

This list represents books read whilst they could be characterised as having been written by a living author. Saul Bellow is now dead (RIP), so TAOAM is the first Bellow novel I’ve read that represents a corpus of work that will not be added to. Ravelstein was written in 2000 and I think I read Seize the Day in about 2003, and I don’t know of any Bellow fiction being published after Ravelstein, so technically nothing changed between my reading that list of novels and reading TAOAM. But it is different.

I think it’s different because when you’re reading work by a living writer, you’re engaged with the writer’s project in progress. It’s the difference between partaking of the feast, and clearing up after it. Reading Philip Roth now is a good example of partaking of the feast – there’s a certain thrill in reading another energetic and angry book from the big PR, because you know, in his bare, spare NY apartment, he’s still scribbling with a pencil, studiously not admiring the view the better to concentrate. When he passes on, you’ll be reading a book that was written by a great writer around which and whom the dust has settled – there’s no more kicking the dirt up around your boots, in the writerly sense that Roth does this with each new book.

If you get me, great. If you don’t… well, you’re not the first. Moving on to Bellow’s big book:

TAOAM is a massive, varied and sprawling novel about all sorts of things. It’s a stab at the great American novel, for sure. It’s about nobility and squalor, wealth and poverty, women and men, sex and shopping, and everything in between. Augie, by his character and his situation, is drawn into one after another of the American myths of the hero* (and the self). He’s a thief, a rich kid, a lord, a hunter, a drunk etc.

Augie, when challenged with, “Well, come on, what are you trying to prove?”, replies:

I don’t want to prove a single thing, not a thing. Do you think I have this kind of ambition to stand out and prove something? Almost everybody I ever knew wanted to show in some way how he held the world together. This only comes from feeling the strain of holding yourself together, and it gets exaggerated into the whole world from the hard labour you put into it. But it doesn’t take hard labour. Or at least shouldn’t. You don’t do that. The world is held for you. So I don’t want to be representative or exemplary or head of my generation or any model of manhood. All I want is something of my own, and bethink myself. This is why I’m sounding off now and am excited.

And by his tender, failing heart and his light-headed love of fate, Augie’s a portrait of myths of man as well. He falls at women’s feet, and he is captured by their beauty, their vulnerability, and their craziness.

Meeting again, years after a night spent together on a cliff in Mexico, Augie falls for Stella:

My body, which is maybe all I am, this effortful creature, felt subject to currents and helpless. I wanted to go and hug her by the legs, but I thought I’d better wait. For why should I assume it would be right?

What I want to say most clearly about this novel is this: it’s big and difficult in places, but you will come to love Augie March.

I’m not sure if this is the Everyman effect that the blurb on the back cover refers to or not. It’s not so much that I identify with Augie, or with one of his myths; it’s more, as he says of another character, a difficult man named Einhorn, that I’m kinda in love with him.

Bellow is a very good writer. This has been said all over the place, and you feel it to be true with an early book like TAOAM (see JM Coetzee’s essay regarding Bellow’s first three novels in the NYRB). You know it to be true with later work like Herzog. And of course, for what it’s worth, he won the Nobel prize for literature.

So the man has skills. And he uses them to good effect in creating the character of Augie March. I want the best for him, and I worry that he gets himself into one scrape after another, either job-wise or lady-wise, or both. And the more Augie’s discourse turns to marriage, land ownership, children, and vocation, the more my heart swells and I long for him to sort his life out and settle into the patterns that most of us live in. Some people live in mansions and palaces, and some people live in the dirt; but most of us live in-between.

Grandma Lausch, an early figure in Augie’s shaping, will not read a book that’s not a roman. This book, The Adventures of Augie March, is a roman, in the lovely, resonant sense of that word: a book that sound romantic, that’s about growing up and living, that’s about loss and gain, life and death.

If you were to read only one Bellow novel, then it would have to be, in my opinion, Herzog (for reasons I hope to go into another time). But this one’s good too.

* John Barth, in a footnote (p309) in his autobiographical novel Once Upon a Time (1994), tells how he worked out the heroic dimensions of his character Ebenezer Cooke, poet laureate to Maryland, from his novel, The Sot-Weed Factor. Barth describes a list created by Lord Raglan used to measure the salient features of the mytho-heroic character pattern. Raglan lists, in chapter 16 of The Hero (1936), 22 features of the hero myth, including such things as the hero’s mother is a royal virgin, his father is a king, and he meets with a mysterious death, often at the top of a hill. Oedipus scores 21 points. Jesus would score 19, comparable to Theseus and King Arthur. Depending on how you score him – literally or allegorically – Augie scores either 2 (the everyman score) or about 15. (Of course, if you re-wrote the measures to characterise the American myth of the hero, the score would be different again. But I think you get the idea.)

everyman and the plot against america

August 9, 2006

Philip Roth’s two most recent publications, novel and novella, are quite different kinds of story, I think.

The Plot Against America was most absorbing in its front half, getting silly and incredible in its back half. It was good in the beginning because Roth created a detailed life of a child, Philip Roth, in an alternative history of America that was drawn broadly enough to be unworryingly credible. Charles Lindbergh winning the presidency from FDR was handled in a couple of brash, confident gestures of fictional history, and his seemingly benign figure was allowed to fly across Washington in the kind of silver-edged light of Fascist posters and those pressed-back trains that looked like they were speeding past when they were standing stock still.

Through the eyes of young Philip, old Philip unrolled the horrifying predicament of an ordinary Jewish family being suddenly suspended – like something dissolved – in an atmosphere of sanctioned anti-Semitism and right-wing politics. People close to him are trodden down, and others, by deceit and evil ways, are raised up. It’s all very involving until the chapter when old Roth delivers a hand grenade of silly alternative history into the narrative, blasting the story and the mood to smithereens. A real mistake.

So when I heard there was a new Roth novella, Everyman, I was not as excited as I might have been in the heady days of first reading Sabbath’s Theater and all the Zuckerman novels. I only arrived at Roth in 1999 and didn’t stop reading his books until I’d caught him up. Operation Shylock and The Counterlife are phenomenal books, in my opinion, and examples of true postmodernism. So, time passed, the small wound healed, and one day I found a cut price hardcopy of Everyman on ebay – click, click… and it was in the post.

And it’s faultless. It’s no Counterlife, mind, but it’s great. Stripped of the structural intrigue of his more challenging works, and stripped of the rage of his bright-burning books, it is nonetheless an intimate and involving story of a dead man. And it’s got some funny bits. Beginning with the funeral of this nameless character, this everyman, we are transported back in time, initially by the eulogies delivered, until the narrative device fades and the story takes over. The title comes from two sources, the reviewers tell me: it is the name the protagonists father paints above his jewellery store to ensure that he doesn’t narrow his market to the Jewish community only, and it is the name of a play. From the review in the Jewish Quarterly:

We are never told the protagonist’s name and the title of the novel derives not so much from his father’s business as from the fifteenth-century morality drama, The Summoning of Everyman, in which an allegorical representative of mankind finds himself suddenly required to give a ‘general reckoning’ or ‘account’ of his life so that he may be judged and sent accordingly to Heaven or Hell.

So this everyman gives his account. It’s a wonderful story with a soft challenge, I feel, almost imperceptible because one’s so accustomed to Philip Roth’s wrathful philippics (his pun, not mine). The challenge, I feel, is to tell your own story. To draw your life up against this everyman’s tale, and see how universal it really is (ambiguity intended).

I wasn’t going to write about this book but I was stimulated to by something I read on Critical Mass. One of the book critics they interviewed, Jennifer Reese, said:

Only once did I feel totally out-of-step and it was both fascinating and horrifying. The book was Philip Roth’s Plot Against America and with each new rapturous review I felt more and more isolated. Unfortunately, I had written my lukewarm review at the beginning of the tidal wave of praise and only later did I figure out with precision everything that infuriated me about the novel. I took heat for that review. Very unpleasant, very interesting experience. I’ve never thought harder about a book.

In that review, Jennifer Reese put her finger on what I agree is the failure of the novel. She wrote:

Roth has spun an unconvincing fantasy that falls far short of his finest work. While his depictions of the Roth family’s idyllic pre-Lindbergh existence (and Philip’s vibrant, eccentric inner life) are detailed and persuasive, he has set them against a cardboard backdrop of a fatally underimagined alternative America.

So what stimulated me to blog about these two novels is that I want to set the world to rights. Critics generally praised TPAA and they have general been a bit floppy membered about Everyman. I think it’s the other way around. TPAA is not a successful novel and poor by Roth’s standards; Everyman is a successful novel, and whilst not the most thrilling thing Roth has written, is pretty damn affecting.

So. There it is.

Barnes on Flaubert

May 7, 2006

There is an excellent essay from Julian Barnes, Flaubert, C’est Moi, on Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet and a new biography of Flaubert at The New York Review of Books.

I am yet to read B et P but I have enjoyed the Dictionary of Accepted Ideas that forms an appendix to the novel. See my post what do you know about Archimedes?

Barnes describes the novel:

Bouvard et Pécuchet, by contrast, a work of the highest artistic purpose, is an encyclopedia of human endeavor with a directly opposite take—”the Baedeker of futility,” as Cyril Connolly called it. The novel is an exasperated assertion that human resourcefulness is usually directed at foolish projects, and human ingenuity an excuse for gross self-satisfaction. And though Bouvard et Pécuchet will never be as popular as Madame Bovary or L’Éducation sentimentale (it has at least overhauled Salammbô, currently way out of fashion), it is still stubbornly being read—and Mark Polizzotti’s supple and sprightly translation will doubtless find it a happy few more.

Stubbornness, indeed, pervades and surrounds this novel. It is about stubbornness — the indefatigable attempt by two retired Parisian clerks to master and subdue the whole of human knowledge, a task in which they persevere despite constant failure and discouragement. It represents a decades-long act of authorial stubbornness, a commitment made in the face of Flaubert’s own doubts and several friends’ wise discouragements. It is aesthetically stubborn in its constant refusal to grant readers the narrative flow they traditionally crave. And it requires a stubborn reader, one willing to suspend normal expectations and able to confront both repetitious effects and a vomitorium of predigested book-learning.

Now, that makes me want to read the novel very much – I like dense, encyclopaedic books that teach me lots of things I didn’t know. For me, the best recommendation is

The novel’s resistance to easy reading must have been as much part of its appeal to modernism as its curious flatness of tone and its radical innovation of form. At last — the novel was allowed to be difficult, allowed actively to deter certain readers, and to tack a vast appendix of data and pseudodata on the end of something that was half hyperrealism, half tract. Thus Pound thought Bouvard et Pécuchet inaugurated “a new form which had no precedents”; while, according to Cyril Connolly, it was Joyce’s favorite novel.

the beast is slain!

March 20, 2006

Finally, this last weekend, I finished reading Roger Lewis's biography of Anthony Burgess.

I was trying to summarise for my wife, who has suffered through bits and pieces of my interior monologue on the experience of reading this book, my assessment of it as a biography of Burgess.

The first point I made was that I have not read very much Burgess, and so am not in a position to refute Lewis's opinions and assertions about a number of the Burgess books. Burgess books I have read are (in this order):

  1. Inside Mr Enderby (circa 1988)
  2. A Clockwork Orange
  3. Earthly Powers
  4. A Dead Man in Deptford (not completed)
  5. Inside Mr Enderby (again in 2005)
  6. Enderby Outside
  7. The Clockwork Testament or Enderby's End
  8. Enderby's Dark lady

Also, without realising I was watching a Burgess adaptation, I remember being enthralled by Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth as a child.

So, although Lewis's tone is distasteful, I did find that at times I was persuaded of his critical faculty. What he has to say is not uninteresting but the way he says it is often repulsive. He sneers at Burgess and his alcoholic first wife Lynne. He squeezes out nasty thoughts about the possible truth behind what he claims are Burgess's lies lies lies. Emblazoned across the back cover of the book is this quote:

Question: On what occasions do you lie?
Burgess: When I write, when I speak, when I sleep.

Lewis chews on this idea throughout the book, and ultimately this destroys it. He's the biographer who came to hate his subject, and he's not professional enough to finish the job of writing the book without letting his bile leak onto the pages.

But, and this is what I was trying to express to my wife, I think his overall assessment of Burgess holds some interest. Lewis presents not evidence but rather an array of interpreted substance and supposition that draws a picture of a man who at some point lost his perspective on himself. Perhaps. John Wilson takes on the part of Anthony Burgess, but he never quite has the confidence to stop creating the character, and so he goes too far. Perhaps. His exaggerations, his larger-than-life gestures, become his lies, his dishonesty. Burgess's conceits are, for Lewis, his deceits.

Lewis, also, is not an unskilled writer. He weaves, gently and largely imperceptibly, a well- textured critical analysis of Burgess's authorial project. He admires – in a rare moment – the man's productivity and discipline. He consistently draws connections, sometimes elliptically, between Burgess's thought and the themes that preoccupy him: Joyce, language, Marlowe, espionage, exile, impotence, betrayal, violence. And at the end Lewis draws these threads together into a convincing (and well-turned) thesis:

Marlowe, the dead man in Deptford, and the subject of the final novel, is symbolic of talent attenuated; Burgess is representative of talent protracted. His career was a phantasmal, enigmatic enterprise… Yet, slippery and amorphous as he was, Burgess hated not to be grasped: 'I like understanding from those who read my books,' he once bellowed… Well he's had plenty of understanding from me, fair play. I can see for example that (a) he was a great writer who never wrote a great book: his talent was too widely dispersed; (b) his life was circumscribed by deaths: his mother, his sister, his first wife, his own first death sentence – and his real death sentence… and if it is true he wrote to live (and to make a living), he also worked to forget, to block out, rather than to remember. He did his best to disengage himself from his feelings; this is why there is no sensuality in his writing… There is a lack of positive, warm emotion… What does come through, in his best work, is a sense of doom. Empires collapsing; the end of the world.

To me, based on what I've read, this is persuasive stuff. I cannot, however, leave any sort of simple glow of recommendation smudged across Lewis and his book.

I dug up part of an email exchange I had about reading this book. Here is what I had to say when I first restarted it:

I have restarted, after a two year break, Roger Lewis's hatchet job biog of Anthony Burgess. I am determined to finish it despite the bitterness with which Lewis regards his subject. I find Burgess such an interesting character, but his writing is so dense and erudite that I find I can only properly absorb it with adequate recovery periods between books. In the five or so pages I have read (starting where I left off), Lewis has already implied that two men were having it off with Burgess's wife in a menage a trois and that Burgess was too dumb to realise – it is fascinating in itself to see the breakdown of the biographer. This is what happens when the biographer finds that the subject he began researching in a hazy glow of adoration is someone he now detests. Lewis definitely comes out of it looking like the creep though, not Burgess.

what do you know about Archimedes?

February 22, 2006

As Jacques Barzun informs you in the introduction to his translation of it, Gustave Flaubert’sThe Dictionary of Accepted Ideas started life as an appendix to his novel Bouvard et Pecuchet, and was first published as a separate work in 1951.

The two themes of the dictionary, according to Barzun, are:

  1. The castigation of the cliche.
  2. …this principle has to be borne in mind, for some of the utterances pilloried are manifestly true; they have to be said at certain times, being in themselves neither fatuous nor tautological. What damns them is the fact that they are the only thing ever said on the subject by the middling sensual man.

  3. An attack on misinformation, prejudice and incoherence as regards matters of fact.
  4. Flaubert has an infallible ear for the contradictions that everybody absent-mindedly repeats: “ABSINTHE. Violent poison: one glass and you’re dead. Newspapermen drink it as they write their copy.” He plumbs with equal sureness the depths of well-bred ignorance… people know only two things about Archimedes, not three.

Here are some examples of accepted ideas:

  • ACADEMY, FRENCH. Run it down, but try to belong to it if you can.
  • ARCHITECTS. All idiots: they always forget to put in the stairs.
  • BA DEGREE. Thunder against. [I remember encountering that accepted idea all through my BA degree!]
  • BLUESTOCKING. Term of contempt applied to women with intellectual interests. Quote Moliere in support: “When the compass of her mind she stretches…”
  • CENSORSHIP. “Say what you will, it’s a good thing.”
  • CHRISTIANITY. Freed the slaves.
  • CRUSADES. Benefited Venetian trade.
  • DELFT. More swank than “china”.
  • DIPLOMACY. A distinguished career, but beset with difficulties and full of mystery. Suited only to aristocrats. A profession of vague import, though higher than trade. Diplomats are invariably subtle and shrewd.
  • ECHO. Mention the one in the Pantheon and the one under the bridge at Neuilly.
  • ERECTION. Said only of monuments.
  • FLAG. The sight of it makes the heart beat faster.
  • FURNITURE. Be apprehensive – every kind of mishap can happen to yours.

I have been dipping in and out of this delightful little volume. (There’s an entry for the dictionary itself right there: DICTIONARY, FLAUBERT. A delightful little volume. Dip in and out of it, from time to time.) Here endeth the lesson as I have only reached ‘G’ in the dictionary myself.