Sunday, December 18, 2016

Stendhal's Scarlet and Black

Romanticism remains a literary football, its detractors, on different teams, digging leather-bound products from dust-filmed closets and kicking them all over their studies. The excesses of confessionalism are sometimes traced back to earnest lyrics by Wordsworth. Soft-lens adventure yarns are damned as low-middlebrow James Fenimore Cooper excitations. But Romantics – even those in the first-wave of 1789-1824 – developed specific obsessions that were faithfully adhered to, even throughout Realism, until the great artistic tumults of 1913. One of those obsessions, of course, was a worshipper’s belief in the power and value of intense feeling. And when the hyper-rational George Bernard Shaw calls Shelley’s The Cenci one of the great tragedies in English drama, one can only imagine how passionate must have been the views of its adherents back in the day when Napoleon was busting heads.

Stendhal’s masterpiece, the novel Scarlet and Black (most often translated as The Red and the Black), came out in 1830 when the first onrush of Romanticism’s emotional and individual force had lessened somewhat, though its aesthetic dominance, while not monolithic, was unchallenged. Stendhal’s genius was a combination of a unique style – wildly at odds with the descriptive flourishes the dominant movement required – with Romantic passion bordering, at times, on melodrama. That emotional drive, though, was pestered by an ironic view, finely placed, on the proceedings. (Romantics – Byron and maybe a few others excepted – hate satire.) And that style must have been a brave approach: plain and without immersive symbolism, but set in complex subordinate clauses mellifluously rendered, and with a psychological acuity both brilliant and detailed among variously motivated class-positioned characters.

Well before this point, it’s traditional for the reviewer to give a plot synopsis, but I hate those kinds of reviews. The biggest reason is that it destroys narrative surprise (though if it’s a postmodern novel, that’s usually unimportant, even encouraged). Another reason is that even in plot-heavy novels, the story is just a framework to hold more important features of the work. It’s here I smile, because the preceding few sentences of meta-commentary is a lead-in to Stendhal – that trailblazing out-of-time realist – as whispering Lawrence Sterne, the French author sneaking in one paragraph, a now famous one, which operates as a shocking narrative interruption, an l’art du roman. I include it here, prefaced by most of the preceding paragraph:

“[T]hese attach themselves with obstinate tenacity to some particular set, and if that set ‘makes good’ all the best things society can give are showered upon them. Woe to the studious man who does not belong to any set; even his minor doubtful successes will be held against him, and superior virtue will triumph over him by robbing him of these.

Why, my good sir, a novel is a mirror journeying down the high road. Sometimes it reflects to your view the azure blue of heaven, sometimes the mire in the puddles on the road below. And the man who carries the mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror reflects the mire, and you blame the mirror! Blame rather the high road on which the puddle lies, and still more the inspector of roads and highways who lets the water stand there and the puddle form.”

The novel’s long chronicle reaches its exquisite finalĂ© in the drawn-out prison scene, Julien a presursor for Camus’ Merseault in L’Etranger. As much as I love the latter novel, and realizing that Camus’ first-person anti-hero was neutrally positioned, Stendhal’s protagonist’s clash with the cleric, his father, and the exchanges with his two visiting loves, is elemental, frenetic, yet almost documentarily conceived, pitiless yet moving, eerie, funereal. It makes the similarly-plotted L’Etranger climax seem desiccated and didactic by contrast.

(My edition was wonderfully, painstakingly, translated by Margaret R.B. Shaw.)

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Leon Rooke and Tony Calzetta's Fabulous Fictions

“First there was the Word ...” Even if not a Biblicist, most have heard this phrase (from John?). Flattering to literary types, when thought of as a collaboration between, say, poets and creators within a different artistic field, the words usually come first. Schubert composed lieder to Goethe’s poetry, for example. The relation of words to painting, however, has occasioned a reverse sequence. Ashbery, among other poets, often uses a particular painting or drawing as a starting point for excited speculation. That relationship continues with veteran short story maker Leon Rooke and painter Tony Calzetta, in this year’s Fabulous Fictions. The latter provided a set of typically vivid abstract objects floating from or over a simple background of night sky or amoeba-like flourishes which evoke a curious feeling of neutral pulsing with menacing foreboding. It’s a perfect fit for Rooke, whose stories, here and elsewhere, trick us with uproarious dialogue, monologue, and plot (such as it can be in these particular flash fictions), so that the underbelly of human-besotted action creates shock by contrast. “Bank President’s Address To Minions On The Eve Of The Release Of The Annual Financial Report Showing Profits Heretofore Unseen In The World” shows Rooke’s strength to best effect. At first, the story seems like it could travel down the typical path of simple political denunciation, but the president’s speech, without seeming to adjust its register, incorporates personal failure, and the two narratives are interwoven expertly without the speaker’s remorse for either experience. A more immediate justice is served in other stories. “Son Of Scroll”, in what must be less than two hundred words, proceeds by way of amoral (immoral?) interviewer probing the life of another outsider now part of the ‘backwards’ island community. But it’s the interrogator who proves backward during the witty ending (which I won’t spoil). Fabulous Fictions is a delightfully insouciant production from The Porcupine’s Quill.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Jan Conn's Edge Effects

“The drifter and I are hanging on/by our teeth”, is most of a couplet from “Night Deeper Than Water”, from poet Jan Conn’s Edge Effects, out in 2012. I know the feeling. Many of the offerings from this 85 page collection waver in the space between suggestion and disjunction, or, to put it less charitably, between suggestion and inscrutability. Fortunately, though, since the oneiric and fabulous are major modes within the volume, a realistic exploration of image and metaphor vacant or dismissive of organic linkage is fine. And Conn scores with many intriguing metaphysical etchings well-grounded in vivid imagistic particulars: “Pumpkins glow in the field like planets/of a brand new solar system” is just one example. Reverie’s dark side, however, is, past its inventive play of possibilities within its world-without-space-and-time, a flight from depth, or at least waking perspective. Hence, the instances of “I no longer stay at the bombed-out Ritz:/too many ashes in the swimming pool/and no laundry service.” (from “The Erotic Error Bar”), and “the lanterns explode./Sisyphus shows up drunk,/out of work and mean.” (from “Orpheus’ Garden”), which, despite their downmouth diction, fail to shock with poem-ending gravitas or humour, being merely clever with atonal juxtaposition. This is a quibble, though. Many phrases, lines, and poems deliver with imaginative concentration, both focused and playful, and although I had problems with sonorous overreach – an exotic lexicon seems to have been shoehorned into some long lines as travelogue sparkle – Conn takes chances, and succeeds, with an intriguing blend of image and psychic residue.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Richard Stark's Backflash

Every other year or so I decide to read a book from the straight-up crime genre. This time, it was probably because I’d recently read Graham Greene’s The Human Factor, which followed the interior excitations of a British double agent pursued (until the final scenes, psychologically) by his patriot employers. Knowing next to nothing about the legacy of noir lit, and not wanting to scour its history, I took a flyer on a plug from a comment on a crime novel blog: Richard Stark’s Backflash, from 1998.

Stark was a pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake. Making Balzac look like a constipated, somnolent, fastidious follower of Flaubert, Westlake pumped out over a hundred novels, about twenty-five of them from the Stark brand, and about twenty of those in a series whose lead character, Parker, schemes and tricks and blasts his way to depressing glory through the grubby particulars (in Backflash) of a riverboat heist. This anti-heroic, weary, shithead protagonist is supposed to garner respect, if not sympathy. Like any of the other characters, he’s two-dimensional, and the dimensions are grey and brown. Parker has the charm of a loose dental dam, so the clipped, professional banter doesn’t reveal anything interesting about the thug, but acts simply as a way to push the plot along like an overwhelmed paramedic shifting a heart attack victim on a gurney over a busy beach sidewalk. There’s one segment, featuring unfunny but interesting dialogue, where Parker and one of his aides banter off-topic about inconsequential issues while waiting for reinforcements during an intense half-hour or so. I subsequently learned that Quentin Tarantino got his famous dialogue schtick (with the two too-cool-for-school, wisecracking, violent cops) in Pulp Fiction from Westlake/Stark. Then again, I also learned (a few years ago) that he got it from Charles Willeford. At any rate, Stark’s wit is pedestrian and repetitively signaled, which just goes to show that an idea’s originator is often poor at executing it to any positive renown.

I guess the drill for enthusiastic readers centres on plot, plot, and more plot. Oh, and suspense. The novel checks those boxes moderately well, but as for writing, characterization, ideas ... well, it’s traditional crime fiction, and the best authors of the genre know how to operate the Pavlovian machine to page-turning rhapsody.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Danny Jacobs' Songs That Remind Us of Factories

In his inaugural collection, Sounds That Remind Us Of Factories, (2013), Danny Jacobs’ poems resemble exotic vines threading their way through a thick trellis: powerful, relentless, knotted, and flashy. “Pacific Energy Super 27” sets out with, “Wind-scribe, smoke-crate, one-show boob tube/caterwauling pipewise”, and continues, nine lines down the page, with, “dustbin dreaming sleekness firebox and baffle/deep”. Many lines of many poems are similar in descriptive concentration: (from “Ox”: “set to charge the sagged cat’s cradle/of rusted wire, go gorge happy and play/longhorn sky-high ragdoll”). One is impressed with the sonorities, the doubled- and tripled-up vowel extensions which would be terrifically scored as spilling over their bar divisions on sheet music. But the technique, though impressive, tends to overwhelm. Interiority isn’t muted, it’s often replaced by dogged observation. Similarly, the limited range of emotion – stoical toughness, ironical self-awareness (in the good sense of that contemporary, prevalent ploy), bemused regret – isn’t always a problem since the images, and the sounds that power them, are doing the shovel-work of drama. The feelings are genuine, though, which is the more important consideration. And Jacobs will often unflex his line-busting biceps toward concluding epiphanies or rueful summations: “go back/to your overlords,/we may mean you harm”, from “Domestic Entomology” (first sub-poem); “It’s never loss but a changing of forms.”, from “How to Shoot Skeet With My Grandfather’s Lost Double Barrel”. If you can stay with the often-dense wordplay, and intone the lines in rhythmic momentum, the assonance is enjoyable and appropriate for much of the gritty content. However, overindulgence is the dark attraction for the author going all-in for sound. Hence, an at-times Eunoia-esque bass-loop sticking, “frumpy bolted hulk with breech plug,/lift lug, and locknut flush to the inch.//With wife gone he shunned his lawn/and got stuck on mock-ups. Wind-snug,/dud draft plans hugged my screen door”, from “Hobbyist”. In like fashion, “Scripted Pitch” ’s jackhammer jolts fill the ears with the letter ‘i’.

When Jacobs relaxes his frequent Eldar Djangarov-like itch to dazzle with pyrotechnics, poems breathe, and phrasal surprises light up (at least) this reader’s imagination with more staying power than euphonic play alone. “We’re Growing” is terrific start to finish, an intelligent lament for, and diatribe on, unspoiled wood acreage and land ‘development’, respectively. “The neighbourhood’s on the fence” is perfect, as is “ferret/out new hovels”. “Miscue” flirts with mathematical (ideational, not structural) complexity, but is grounded in its poolroom particulars, character quirks given concise variation throughout a snooker-route of differently plotted, and effective, enjambments. The “Insight” sub-poem from “What the Walls Said” is the best of the telesales section, confidently ironic, and able to maintain a direct force throughout without the self-satisfied collapse into flippant mimicking mockery other poems of contemporary anti-marketing fall into: (“If you leave for home with your headset/still horseshoeing your neck like a sci-fi ascot,”).

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building

Either translated dully by Humphrey Davies, or translated faithfully to the dull stylings of author Alaa Al Aswany, the latter’s 2002 The Yacoubian Building is a failed structural precursor to the much superior Last Man in Tower, by Aravind Adiga. Adiga’s novel, set in Mumbai (and reviewed at this site), begins with a dramatis personae, a dozen or so characters all living in different apartments in the same building where their idiosyncrasies, colours, stories, and complicated relationships come to life. Not so with Aswany’s novel.

Cairo’s Yacoubian building is much more class-divided than is its counterpart in Adiga’s novel, yet the possibilities for economic illumination and dramatic thrust are missed by Aswany. Many of the characters rarely (or don’t at all) mingle and interact, so I don’t understand why the novel was set up in this way. Still, as a narrative squarely planted in realist soil, it promised at least a peek into a corner of the world English-speaking readers rarely get to experience. It didn’t deliver, and the problems are multiple.

The prose is either boilerplate he-moves-here-she-moves-there, melodramatic, didactic, or logorrheic, sometimes the latter three at once. I weary to provide quotes, but if you need examples, just flip to most any page, especially towards the last half of the book where the histrionics are ratcheted to ten. As in any melodrama, the ending is predictable, or should I say the many ends, since the five or so (almost entirely) segmented stories steam away in a pressure-cooking pot, and with as much mechanical fascination. In what is perhaps the main story thread, Taha’s sweetheart since childhood has left him in order to secure needed cash for her family by accepting the sexual contract of your standard lecher with means. Taha’s commitment to Islam is intensified, and in an ending logistically impossible, psychologically unbelievable, and predictable two hundred pages prior, his demise, in a spray of bullets, leads to this bizarre passage: “Then it seemed to him as though the agony was diminished little by little and he felt a strange restfulness engulfing him and taking him up into itself. A babble of distant sounds came to his ears—bells and sounds of recitation and melodious murmurs—repeating themselves and drawing close to him, as though welcoming him into a new world.” This isn’t irony, and one doesn’t know how much of this psychic heaven-merging propaganda was made necessary by implicit censorship, or how much was Aswany’s attempt at giving a romantic veneer to the earlier, grittier scenes which at least had the good faith of legit interaction.

The dialogue, too, is horrendous. Each character speaks, no matter what the unique level of education, emotional sensibility, or life experience, in the same stilted and (at times) bombastic formulations. The novel is a parade of newspaper ideas set in the mouths of convenient cut-out characters. Once the outlines are set, it’s like pulling cords dangling from their backs to get the appropriate canned response.

I’m tough on this book because it’s an easier sell to an international audience who may tend to overlook these egregious miscues in order to focus on the ‘exotic’, as well as on the putatively unique issues the novel involves itself with. But any decent fictional work has to transcend its cultural and geographical particulars. The Yacoubian Building was written by a dentist-journalist. The publisher should have pulled it from production, and suggested it as multi-issue filler in a newspaper, but, as the novel’s deficits (hysterics! mysterious people and places!) make clear, it was the perfect springboard to a movie adaptation. Ka-ching!

Monday, December 12, 2016

Juan Filloy's Op Oloop

Immediately after finishing Juan Filloy’s incredible first novel from 1934, Op Oloop, I flipped to the back page and noted, with encouragement and dismay, that only two of the Argentinian author’s works (fifty-five, I’ve since learned) have been translated into English. I can only read one other, then, but there’s hope, at least, for more cross-language communication. The man lived in three centuries! Somebody throw a pile of cash at (Op Oloop’s translator) Lisa Dillman!

The novel is a hilariously inventive mapcap, structured, and very loosely themed, on Joyce’s Ulysses, which Filloy obviously devoured. Covering twenty hours in the life of the eponymous tragi-comic Argentinian ex-pat Finn, the story has our peripatetic hero traveling from bathhouse to fiancĂ©’s house to a late-night park to dinner-hosting at a restaurant to brothel and finally to his residence, all the while alternating between considered wisdom and wise madness.

The entire book is a highlight, but I especially enjoyed the long, highly-charged emotional discourse among friends and acquaintances at the restaurant, at which Optimus Oloop gives the only explanation (not a spoiler, since the novel is a modernist consideration, but it has to do with the Great War) for his anguish in his failed attempt at self-control and mathematically-ordered daily habit. Filloy, a psychologically astute (Freud knew him, and followed his work) world-renowned palindromist, speaker of seven languages, neologist, and boxing referee, has great fun in creating an effervescent prose reading experience, full of humour and dark colour, angry and loving exchanges, and, not least, a pervasive and daring exploration on the nature of love, presented (often) in a surprisingly compatible mode of absurdity. Sparse quoting can’t do the book justice, but here are a few selections, anyway:

“ ‘It brings forth a flaccid rotundity as soon as the mouth stops articulating thoughts in favor of gobbling meats and sweets. When one reaches that stage, the cerebral lobes abandon the skull and sink down into the buttocks ... ’ ”.

“ ‘As has already been stated: some people’s brains border their anal regions. Thus, their senses are dulled, and the psychopathological pestilence is such that the intrepid scholar-explorer inevitably butts up against a dead end’ ”.

“ ‘Gentlemen, I know perfectly well that friends, like cigarette lighters, tend to fail just when you need them most. Why, my own uselessness is notorious. Unless it’s for a bash or a brawl! ... I can box, so I like to piss people off. See, if it weren’t for my jibes, I’d never use my jabs. So the touching thing about my friendship with Op Oloop is the mutual indifference that unites us. I don’t care about statistics, and he has no interest in who I punch’ ”.

“All the memories clotted together in her heart like so many aneurisms; all her tears lay buried beneath her desperate maquillage; and all the jewels given to her by her ‘sweethearts’ were pinned to her black taffeta dress, suitably buttoned up to the neck’ ”.

“Just when vertigo was on the verge of wrenching him free, Op Oloop shut his eyes, guillotining its magnetic pull.”