Monday, August 13, 2012

# 13 Henry James: Wings of the Dove

The more interested I am in the human mechanics of fiction, increasingly I'm more excited by fiction that has the ability to bore youth on a grand stuffy scale, and would have bored me, like Henry James. My only experience to date was Daisy Miller. she died, I remember this much. 
But it's the sentence that does it for me and has rekindled something in me about the material of words making sentences making paragraphs making pages, which make books, something in the first few chapters of Wings of a Dove have made reading Henry James a puzzling, exciting experience full of art and gamesmanship, full of cyphers and tricks, supersubtleties (his own word from the preface, and one of my favourite new words) and aesthetic high-wire acts. I might read James as a writer, but it is only through understanding what he's able to do to a reader - he is a conjurer and a pickpocket - that the effort seems worth making to try and rub a little supersubtely off on myself. That's not to say I want to do a Henry James. Nobody can pull off a Henry James and anyone that tries to take him into the 21st Century will find themselves standing in Washington Square dressed as a chimney sweep decrying the century they missed.
We don't talk that way anymore. A Jamesian dialogue doesn't exist anymore. Those meandering (not always a negative, I love a lingering sentence) psychological profiles through dialogue and insightful little asides, they don't work anymore. We're all too psych-popped. We all have a little unofficial diploma in a handful of Phys - we are all in some way obsessed with motives in as matter-of-fact way as we are in keeping a finger in the Culture, it is part of the culture, to call a thing phallic, accuse the least stutter of breaking into a full scale Freudian slip, we all get the Oedipal thing on some level whether we believe it or not. Phys-hobbyists all of us, we won't bow any longer to the insights of a Henry James. We think we know more than he knew about what we think. Whenever I read in a blurb - psychological insights - it turns me off like when I read the words 'loss', 'life', 'redemption,' 'love' and 'death'. I don't dislike the words or what they mean, but I hate a book to claim it is actually about these things. Just as I don't think there are any very interesting or accurate portraits of 'physiological insight' coming out anymore. And this is largely because our concepts of our own minds are made up, and also partly because the really interesting stuff - the neurophilosophyy of Patricia Churchland for example, or the more radical sociological studies - haven't made their debut in fiction. So, throwing the depth aside for later, it is all about the sentence and how one sentence following another sentence gives you - on the best pages - a whole though, a whole working-through of the mind of a James human.
It is thanks in part to William Gass' 'Word in the World' that I came back to James. There is not actually an essay on James in the book, but I know from listening to KBRW Bookworm show, with Michael Silverblatt, when Gass came on and read a passage from Wings of the Dove and deconstructed it, that James is one of his major pillars of the pantheon. Then taking James up I read it him more attentively, and found Gass was right. I saw the architecture, and Gass coupled with James' own preface, helped me see the pier which leads to the shore or high street, on into page-infinite places. I think there is a direct tract from James into modernism, it seems obvious to me. The details, the whirling surface area of human action and thought, how can't there be a link between James and Joyce - it just seems like an obvious connection. So what's now got my brain in a loose knot is wondering where you can go with James if you sidestep (I know, in reality this is impossible) modernism - what kind of book can you produce if you take Henry James alone and dip him in the gloss of the 21st Century, what's produced? It would not be naturalism as it's written now. That is as fallacious a movement in current literature as the further reaches of the avante-garde. It would have to first take account of all the neurological backwaters, it would have to be in part an fMRI scan and a map. Above all the problem might be that so crucially anti-elitist are we, another reason James is more respected than read, it becomes more and more difficult to get your 'type' in fiction. James lived in a time and place where people were ground into the hard surface of knowing their place. One of the most interesting things about writing about people today is that it is all interchangeable. Everybody can be a bit of everybody else. We admire rags that become riches and usually celebrate riches becoming rags. But there's more to that. When Riches can scale the trillions and rags dredge the slums of Mumbai, we're choosing between more than just your Aunt Maud's and Oliver Twists. I'll continue this when I've finished Wings of the Dove.

Which, incidentally, you can get for Free here. I chose not to, there are just some books I need to see and be able to tear a little bit and get a smatch (a word used in the book for stain, which I prefer to stain) inside the pages. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

# 12 - James Joyce - ''Dubliners''

It becomes a richer, nuanced thing when you read Dubliners as something other than a precursor to Ulysses. It's inevitable, of course. Dubliners is usually read before with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and/or Ulysses (daresay Finnegan’s Wake) and with that knowledge comes a kind of ease, as though we're reading apprentice stuff, straight prose without much thought, the work of a writer about to write something spectacular. But. Dubliners is a lot more than James Joyce's apprentiship work. There are parts that reach the pitch of Ulysses, that reach down into a character and pull up their life whole.
Much is made of the word Paralysis when discussing Dubliners. But to make one cloth of Dubliners misses the point completely. It is a book of variety, even if the variety of human desire, struggle, impotence, risk and despair on display is always flecked with frustration, there are is no less sprawl of city life in Dubliners as in Ulysses; the main difference really being one of compactness. We find many of the characters walk into Ulysses, and the transition is natural. These are the same people. But whereas in Ulysses a character has that fractal quality, in these short stories each character is solid. By this I mean Joyce gives them a fuller page to stretch out on, and the details of their life is declaratory, rather than suggested through anecdote, passing thoughts or subtexts. Take, for example, this opening line from 'A painful Case.'
‘’MR. JAMES DUFFY lived in Chapelizod because he wished to live as far as possible from the city of which he was a citizen and because he found all the other suburbs of Dublin mean, modern and pretentious.''
This sort of factual bring-in marks the difference between what we have here and what came later. And though opposites, neither one are exactly more or less authoritative than the other. I think the way we think of Dubliners now is tempered by the 'naturalism' and 'realism,' even the much later 'dirty realism' - as we tend to measure it with the same instruments. But consider, Dubliners was written in 1914 (it took nine years to actually get published.) The grit of the stories, the range of these private lives are as much a precursor to the street-level fiction that grew - largely in America - and was made into something else, and made famous, by the likes of Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Richard Yates and before them, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck (I'm in no mood for long or comprehensive lists, but you get my drift) - and so it seems like the slower, quieter influence of Dubliners has as much claim as Ulysses does over the novel, over the short story.
These are obviously some passing thoughts, so I fished around for something that could serve anyone with a hungrier mind and found this site which is definitely worth the effort and makes a lot of what I say sound, stupid, and any form of authority I managed to simulate sound, stupid (per paraylsis).
Thanks to the people at the Gutenberg Project you can get a copy for free here.

Friday, May 27, 2011

# 11 - Tony Earley - ''The Prophet from Jupiter''

There is a certain type of fiction which excites me, a type of fiction that works best in a shorter form - and which I find hard to define without citing a few examples. A full, teeming, multi-dimensional type of story such as Barthelme's ''Indian Uprising'', Roy Kesey's ''Wait'', Gogol's''Nevsky Prospect'', a big canvas story which intends to give light to each and every element on its surface, giving life to every face, a narrative for every event, a Hieronymus Bosch kind of work: busy, ecstatic, without predudice to any one object, teeming, teeming with life.
Without warning I came across one of the finest examples of this type of story in Tony Earley's ''The Prophet from Jupiter.'' I'd never heard of Earley before, and it was a dramatic introduction. Things in the story unfold quickly, layer upon layer of detail, character, time all crash into each other brilliantly. It reminded me of what Captain Beefheart managed in Trout Mask Replica. When I was 13 and learning to play guitar my teacher, probably bored of showing his students the same Manic Street Preacher numbers - showed me how Beefheart combined different tempos and rhythms that would come i line with each other before veering off into what a less discerning ear would hear as manic, untrained noise. Every minute or so the various elements of a song would synch and sound as though they were running right alongside each other. This is how Earley's story works. It's disparate elements - floods, infidelity, ghosts, madmen, drunk men, a pervasive dam, mayors, Floridians - all of these have their own melody and beat. The genius of the story is to bring them all together, tie them up in places, then let them veer off again. If it were a painting it would be huge. It would have many rooms, people, couples, landscapes. It would require a painter of obsessive powers of perspective and with the ability to extract the figurative in the abstract.
In his commentary at the end of the anthology Tony Earley writes that he found it impossible to write anything after he'd finished. And I can understand that. It is an exhaustive piece of work, crammed full as it could be. I love this story, it fires up those synapses of the imagination in my brain that makes me want to take a very large wall and write all over it and write everything on it. Tony caught his own big fish here, and if ideas weighed as much as the catfish the main character is harnessed to the Dam night on night to catch, I can see Tony sat in a large reinforced chair hurling his typewriter at incoming ideas.

#10 - Sherman Alexie - "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona"

I've recently received a copy of The Best American Short Stories 1994, edited by Tobias Wolff. The great thing about these anthologies is that you're faced with a compilation of some well-known names, whose stories you have probably already read or at least heard of, along with some unfamiliar writers who you wonder after reading how you'd never come into contact with before. I am constantly on the lookout for writers that, for no other reason that a little bad luck (my bad luck) and not stumbling into the right places, have managed to steer free of my radar. If I hadn't already found Jim Shepard and Barry Hannah this anthology would have brought them to my attention (both Jim's ''Batting against Castro'' and Barry Hannah's ''Nicomedus Bluff'' were both anthologised here). But already, halfway in, I've come across two writers whose work I wish I'd found sooner and I'm sure it was always inevitable I would find at some point, as their work seems to fit within the milieu of everything I look for in good fiction, and the fiction that spurs me on, makes me wonder in awe at its execution and give myself over to it fully; both Sherman Alexie's "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" and Tony Earley's ''The Prophet Of Jupiter'' have done all that.
To begin with Sherman Alexie's story; I had never read anything quite like this. As an Englishman with little real experience of living in the US - a few months in the Midwest - my own ideas about what being a Native American Indian today means was riddled with misconceptions. I really fell into this story, and it is Sherman Alexie's skill and heart in drawing the Reservation, the people, the history, the way the people live in a reservation devoid of much else but each other, it is his masterly craft that allows me to fall into a world I am otherwise so unfamiliar with. Victor is the main character, a poor young Indian whose father has just died of a heart attack in Phoenix, Arizona - and it is up to Victor, with no money and only a ride home in his deceased father's truck, to go and pick up what remains packed away in a trailer.
The story begins really when Victor meets Thomas-Builds-The-Fire, an old friend cum foe cum non-entity. Thomas-builds-the-fire is a tragic figure, a true loner, without parents, and with a penchant for telling people stories when they don't want to listen. He is also an emblem of a spiritual centre lost in the furnace of a modern reservation. But Thomas-builds-the-fire offers Victor the money he needs and reluctantly Victor agrees and they set off for Phoenix, Arizona. This is where the story goes from being an interesting story to a beautiful, fluid thing, a story that has real impact and can stand for so many things. Sherman Alexie has been accused before of getting attention and credit because he represents an under-represented culture, but this seems like a ridiculous claim to anyone who has read this story, or any of Alexie's best like ''What you pawn I shall redeem'' which you can find in the New Yorker. The effect created in this story is almost cosmic thanks to Thomas-builds-the-fire, a combination of Thomas's old world mysticism and Victor's hard boiled, hard done-by reality that smacks you round the face with its dichotomy and beauty.
On the plane on the way to Phoenix Thomas-Builds-The-Fire talks to a woman on the plane, and this great scene takes place:
"I mean, you used to be a world-class athlete?" Thomas asked.
"My husband still thinks I am."
Thomas Builds-the-Fire smiled. She was a mental gymnast, too. She pulled her leg straight up against her body so that she could've kissed her kneecap.
"I wish I could do that," Thomas said.
Victor was ready to jump out of the plane. Thomas, that crazy Indian storyteller with ratty old braids and broken teeth, was flirting with a beautiful Olympic gymnast. Nobody back home on the reservation would ever believe it.
"Well," the gymnast said. "It's easy. Try it."
Thomas grabbed at his leg and tried to pull it up into the same position as the gymnast. He couldn't even come close, which made Victor and the gymnast laugh.
"Hey," she asked. "You two are Indian, right?"
"Full-blood," Victor said.
"Not me," Thomas said. "I'm half magician on my mother's side and half clown on my father's."
Suddenly Thomas-builds-the-fire is not such a crackpot, he has a sense of humour and understands his own absurdity and his reality comes seeping out, painfully for the reader, because then for the first time we are aware of how much Thomas-builds-the-fire must be hurting himself, so pointedly aware of his own lot in life and so stoic with it at that. Victor, on the other hand, without much sympathy to begin with, slowly seems the understand the same thing. After discovering nothing much in the truck they start the long drive home, with his father's ashes in two boxes, and these scenes are some of the most touching and unforgettable - especially this scene which I can't help quoting:
'Thomas Builds-the-Fire slid behind the wheel and started off down the road. All through Nevada, Thomas and Victor had been amazed at the lack of animal life, at the absence of water, of movement.
"Where is everything?" Victor had asked more than once.
Now when Thomas was finally driving they saw the first animal, maybe the only animal in Nevada. It was a long-eared jackrabbit.
"Look," Victor yelled. "It's alive."
Thomas and Victor were busy congratulating themselves on their discovery when the jackrabbit darted out into the road and under the wheels of the pickup.
"Stop the goddamn car," Victor yelled, and Thomas did stop, backed the pickup to the dead jackrabbit.
"Oh, man, he's dead," Victor said as he looked at the squashed animal.
"Really dead."
"The only thing alive in this whole state and we just killed it."
"I don't know," Thomas said. "I think it was suicide."
Victor looked around the desert, sniffed the air, felt the emptiness and loneliness, and nodded his head.'
For me this is a scene that aches like only the best writing can, and I think the skill comes from both a deep, deep understanding of that sort of loneliness and what it takes to live with that sort of bad luck. Victor has nothing, no job, his father's ashes in the back of the truck - which was all that was left to Victor - and now the ''only thing alive in this whole state and we just killed it.'' The important word there is ''we''. Since Thomas-builds-the-fire was the one driving, and Victor had avoided everything for miles, but Victor is willing to share in the death of the rabbit and I get the feeling that before they took off together for Phoenix Victor would have not hesitated in saying ''You killed it.'' But he doesn't, the redemption here, the solace, is that they've shared all this together, the pain and the miles, the truck and the ashes, they did it together and this counts for everything. Back at the reservation things become a still-life again, a quiet, tense place bristling with a fractured sense of community, bad history, bad blood. The final words echo long after you finish reading the story:
''Victor stopped the pickup, leaned out the window, and shouted back. "What do you want?"
"Just one time when I'm telling a story somewhere, why don't you stop and listen?" Thomas asked.
"Just once?"
"Just once."
Victor waved his arms to let Thomas know that the deal was good. It was a fair trade, and that was all Victor had ever wanted from his whole life. So Victor drove his father's pickup toward home while Thomas went into his house, closed the door behind him, and heard a new story come to him in the silence afterwards.''
The 'deal was good', a kind of compromise, meeting Thomas-builds-the-fire somewhere halfway, which is more than he has ever got before.

Friday, February 4, 2011

9# Jim Shepard: ''Like You'd Understand, Anyway''

''The sensation of the modern'', a phrase Timothy Murphy memorably used in relation to W. S. Burroughs, is the locus of fiction - in Delillo, Pynchon, Vollman - the writers of the Big Moronic Inferno (to steal another great metropolitan quote, this time from Bellow) use history, Mason and Dixon, Libra, but we do not refer to this as ''Historical Fiction''. The definition, like much concerning the difference between Literary (art) and Genre (reproduction), is all about intentions. Pynchon's Mason and Dixon is not historical fiction because it is not about history, it pilfers from history. Dellilo's Libra is not a biography of Lee Harvey Oswald; it reaps and gleans the times, the media, national reactions, The Warren Report. In the same way Cormac McCarthy is not a writer of Westerns. Good writing transcends its surface subjects.

In the past few years there has been a shift in the short story. On the waves or Carver and his ilk the short story has rarely strayed further than its own century or decade, it usually concentrates on one or a few individuals, but the wide-angle sweep of history has come into its own in recent stories by David Means and Wells Tower, two prodigal New Yorker writers. We have had Viking domestics and 30s FBI stakeouts. In Jim Shepard's Like You'd Understand, Anyway, Russian cosmonauts, Roman family strife, Nazi Yeti hunts in the Himalayas, the first Australian frontiersmen, Revolutionary Paris from the executioner’s point of view and other widely diverse areas are used as the setting for some of the most master-crafted, un-gimmicky, authentic and poignant short stories published in recent years.

Jim Shepard is by no means obscure. His recent story Boy's Town also featured in the New Yorker. But once I read Eros 7 and Ancestral Legacies so much of Wells Tower - such as his celebrated Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned - reads as conceited both of its own design and its use of historical subjects. Part of what makes Wells' story captivating is simply the minor histories, the day to day Viking exploits - but looking any deeper brings no real riches. In stories like The Roof of the World the subject, context, subtexts and plot are inseparable. At no point can you stop and think - Why the Himalayas, why Australia, why Russian Cosmonauts? I did wonder - Why Vikings? And the answer that seemed to come up was: Viking's are cool. Part of this may be because I heard Tower read it in the Guardian books podcast, so perhaps if I read it closely I'd find more to grab onto.

Will Self in his introduction to Ridley Walker said that writers using history are taking the easy way out. For so much fiction - especially novels - this is the case. But when a writer like Shepard can take a character as in so many of these stories and give them a voice so direct, central and significant, without ever resorting to a kind of fiction-fun-fact-finding trope, there should be a division highlighted between 'Historical Fiction' and 'Literary Fiction with a historical setting.' It is essentially the same difference as between Pynchon and Catherine Cookson: one uses history as clay, the other uses history as glitter.

In the New York Times review of Like You’d Understand, Anyway Daniel Handler finds two sides to Jim Shepard's fiction: ‘the realistic kind (in which one of a small quiver of psychological tropes is played out quietly in a few scenes) and the experimental kind (in which an unusual premise or point of view that would grow tiring in a novel is explored, often with a sudden twist).’

Combining The Sensation of the Modern with artfully and dynamically drawn historical settings nudges both the realistic and the experimental into the future, scuffing the dividing line like it was just a rut in the sand.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

8# Stephanie Vaughn: ''Dog Heaven''

I ignore the ongoing debate about MFA programs in the United States. There are too many courses; over 8,000 new MFA students come out certified Writers every year. There have been all those long caustic analyses of the phenomena by acidic people like Anis Shivani in the Huffington Post- a phenomenon which is actually pretty simple. Take human restlessness, a desire to be good at something, a natural unwillingness to work in an office or have bosses, and there you have the mass applications to MFA programs. During its inception places like the Iowa Writers Workshop inspired some great stories and novels, it attracted some brilliant writers, and now it is trying to relive its golden years. As many great writers come out of the fog of an enthusiastic 8000 as came out of an inspired few hundred. The economy of great work is not altered by how many people are taught how to write. Anyone going into a writer's workshop is either someone that would have written anyway or can't write either way. But before I trail into yet another discussion of the discussions I have claimed to ignore, let me present one of the truly glittering golden nuggets from a golden era in creative writing programs, one of the great successes along with Denis Johnson, T C Boyle and George Saunders: Stephanie Vaughn. Her collection ''Sweet Talk'', called ''Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog'' in the first UK editions, is one of those rare works that live up to every bit of praise but never has enough people praising it.

Thankfully many people, including myself, have come to know the story ''Dog Heaven'' through Tobias Wolfe's reading on the New Yorker books podcast. And there is something attractive about the other titles he mentioned, like the other story featured, along with Dog Heaven, in The Picador Book of Contemporary American Stories, called ‘Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog’.

So even before I was familiar with any of the other stories there was that intrigue, the curiosity about this writer I’d never heard of who wrote pitch perfect short stories, who’d never written anything since, who had a novel set in Italy coming out, sometime; it all took on a mythical quality. But then when we read the illusions closely they unearth one of two things: something deceptive, something stringing you along. Or something authentic, the truest rendering of experience possible on the page, and it is the latter in which these stories fall. They are each crafted within the limits of our time and place but transcend the earthbound on a trajectory to great art.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

7# T C Boyle ''Tooth and Claw''

There are those authors who remain well known names to readers, whose key book - in this case Tortilla Curtain - remains the one title readers know whether they've read it or not. But then when readers decide to dip further into the works they are surprised, awed, inspired by the results. In this case it was for me discovering the short stories of T C Boyle. This revelation came to me in the form of a recent collection called Tooth and Claw. I was aware of T C Boyle, I had read some of his stories in the New Yorker and heard him read Tobias Wolff's story in the New Yorker podcast, knew he was one of the successful Iowa group but beyond that I just knew the titles, Tortilla Curtain, Water Music, the World’s End and a few others.

I was happily duped into buying the collection based on the somewhat misleading blub in which the characters are described as deadbeats and bar crawlers. It was the sort of book I was looking to read without laying any great importance on it. But after the first line ''he was on a tear'' there appear many more colours, nuances, so much more variety than the blub has you believe. For me T C Boyle is interesting because of his ability to draw any part of the world into his own stratagem and to mould and weld that into something unique. South America, small town on the English Coast, suburban America - they are each treated with a force of imagination and, to use the Greek word, Ekstasis, they come alive in ways that bear on the cinematic.

I associate T C Boyle not so much with the Iowa group, he seems a generation or two away from Carver and even the younger Denis Johnson, but more with filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch – representing an era and attitude transcending the ideals and ideologies of so many film makers and writers than came before them. I would define it as a sort of quietness, a humour and stoicism you see in so many Wes Anderson characters, noticeable in so many scenes in The Big Lebowski and Fargo and encapsulated so well in Jim Jarmusch’s early Night on Earth or later Coffee and Cigarettes.

What also makes T C Boyle so interesting to read is that each cannibalised era is weighed with equal authenticity. The cultural pivots in this one book alone- 70s fashion and music, housing projects reminiscent of the 80s and 90s corporate climate in Jubilation and even 17thC New York. Some stories are of the Carver-esque human-in-crisis theme but styled in a much more vigorous, erratic and broad way. Some stories are near pastiches or parodies, or perhaps better to say grotesques (in the best possible sense), such as Dogology and Tooth and Claw. Others blend the very real with the ethereal, such as in my favourite story in the piece: The Kind Assassin.

Some may say that T C Boyle's weakness is that there is no one T C Boyle, that his characters are often divisive and at worst a crude tool to move the action along. But he is advancing an aspect of writing fiction that seems to have gone by the wayside after Nabokov and Barthelme died - the idea of the artifice, the idea that the reader is well aware they are participating in something unreal. T C Boyle may well be one of the last great tonics to a pervasive American realism, but on his side he has George Saunders and Ben Marcus and hopefully these authors will, like Boyle has over the past few decades, diversity fiction in many directions and defy the stifling Jonathan Frazen straight-jackets handed out to prospective authors as the 'real thing'.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

6# William S Burroughs: ''Cities of the Red Night''

A few years ago, while I finishing my own treatise – badly written and rushed – on Burroughs, I started seeing a new wave of serious Burroughs scholars and admirers taking a stand. They were refreshingly dismissive of the Burroughs' myth. Timothy Murphy, Oliver Harris and even the ubiquitous Will Self seemed to bring Burroughs in from the cold cult frontiers to a warmer, welcoming foreground of criticism. It suddenly seemed possible to write about Burroughs and leave out all the anecdotes about heroin, Tangiers, boy love and murder – it finally seemed ok to just read Naked Lunch as a book devoid of its author’s overpowering identity.

But since then about five years have passed and very little has changed. If anything he seems to have become less popular. Now grunge has been phased out there doesn’t seem to be any current cultural waves to shore Burroughs up and claim him their own. Nor does the stream of serious criticism and appraisal appear to have carried on into anything more substantial.

But aside from all that the books remain as brilliant, as enviably unlike anything else written before or since, and quietly people are realising how incredibly well written books like Cities of the Red Night really are. Because when you take away the image of the man the words remain and we realise it is in the words we are captivated, not the man. In books like the Red night trilogy – Cities of the Red Night, Place of Dead Roads and Western Lands – you can’t deny that Burroughs was first and foremost a writer. And it wasn’t just at the end of his career that he fine-tuned this relatively (relative to the cut-ups I mean) straight prose, in Junky and the earlier works we read a writer whose voice is fully formed, undeniably powerful, incisive and confident. I think Burroughs is at a crossroads in terms of his path into the literary firmament. He could either go the way of the cult hero or the way of the original genius with something important to say about the 20th Century. Let’s hope that the façade of his image falls away and the books remain intact.

Monday, July 12, 2010

7# Somerset Maugham ''The Razor's Edge''

By Aley Martin

There is something rather special about W Somerset Maugham. Maugham's works offer a detail into the life of a man who struggled with his sexuality and his choice of career. Utilizing both, one can find his misogynist tendencies in the characterizations of men and women in his tales, from "Razors Edge" to one of his best works "Of Human Bondage". One can also find astute understanding of the foibles inherent in human living in some of his lesser known works, including "Christmas Holiday" and "Mrs. Craddock".

Delving into the works of Maugham carries the reader to another time and another state of mind, one in which the reader acknowledges how difficult life can be. Maugham lays out the most complex characters and asks us to forgive them for their frailties. Often, we can see the direct correlation to his own life in his dramatic imagery. For instance, it is said he used his landlady as a model for the character of Mrs. Craddock and he indicates her glorified idea of romance and marriage in his depictions. His "Christmas Holiday" characters, a rich young man who visits Paris during Christmas, and the lady of the evening who holds a sad secret, come across like a mystery unfolding before ours and the characters eyes. Maugham sets the scene of intrigue, and sexual tension and does the unlikely thing, he leaves it smoldering.

The writer offers us a more spiritual journey in "The Razors Edge", a more metaphysical experience that leads the character into strange and new, wondrous places and spaces. Using his experiences as an ambulance driver in this novel, we find the character living that life for a period of time. And as he was also an undercover agent for British intelligence, we can see he knows how and what to reveal and what to keep hidden in his characters minds.

Maugham also offers some of his fascinating thoughts in his "Writer's Notebook" which he explains are fodder for possible works and things he just felt necessary to jot down just in case one day he might use them in something he writes. As a writer, I can attest this is the most interesting piece of work he left behind. Looking deeply into the thought and ideas Maugham dictates to himself offers the reader a fresh new look at the writer to who I am gratefully indebted.

There are many works still on the shelves awaiting my bleary eyes. There is something comforting knowing that, and also relishing the idea that taking time to read the words of such a great writer makes the journey well worth the bumps in the road.

Friday, July 2, 2010

6# Gogol: ''The Nose''

To try and estimate how brilliant, how overwhelmingly influential on all 19th and 20th century literature was Gogol is near impossible. It would be very interesting to see a sort of scatter chart, demonstrating which authors read Gogol and subsequently which authors read them, and down to today - and I am confident we would find Gogol bearing on the majority of writer's ideas, style, comedy - all the things that characterise modern fiction.

Gogol is a mystery himself, and that he wrote short stories so incredibly ahead of their time gives Gogol the air of a cosmonaught, someone stranded on earth and condemned to writing parables, fables, farces and something unnameable - a precursor to the absurd, existentialism and surrealism (among other things). He can be found almost everywhere in modern literature having made branches from these formidable schools of thought.

He stands alone, as much as he has been branded (ironically) with realism, magic realism, surrealism, black comedy, the absurd - none of these catchphrases figured in his writing, none of them existed in the 1800s. He was without the framework that so many writers, who cited him as their style's progenitor, depended on. He acted freely within nothing but the restraints of his imagination. And there are few author's who could claim to imagine with such depth, humour and at times with such feverish, hallucinatory power which Gogol pulled off with apparent ease. Even of the early stories, the majority of which used Ukrainian folk tales and customs as their launching pad (Little Russia was a fashionable export at the time)were imbued with something otherworldly, unliterary in some senses, crude, elegant - defying all the rules of literature at the time.

Greatly enhanced by Pushkin's endorsements and praise Gogol went on the write full time and created the greatest body of short stories and one novel, Dead Souls. The story that has garnered the most attention has been Diary of a Madman. Approaching the story for the first time readers are forgiven for thinking this would be a standard unravelling of a mind got awry. But in Gogol the pace, the slow development of the narrators madness is both extremely, very, very funny and artful to the point that Gogol disappears from the story. When I read it first I kept expecting to run into clichés, but on each new date (which in themselves are ingenious indicators of the narrators state of mind, with things such as 'There is no date today' written as the header) Gogol manages to notch the level up a little higher, until the story reaches its exhaustion point. In the first post on D Barthelme I mentioned the formula used to diagram the short story format, rising tension, resolution etcetera ... It seems that Gogol was the one that both created this formula and simultaneously dismantled it.
He could also be a traditional tall tale teller, in stories like The Portrait, which are told in a very standard form. But even in these more conventional stories the content is where Gogol expresses Gogol, where we find the Gogolisms.
The Nose is one of my favourite stories. It seems to reach the heights of the absurd that would only re-emerges decades, even over a century later in its matured form - in writers such as Bulgakov, Kafka, Beckett - even today Pelevin can be seen as a linear successor to the Russian Absurdist seat.
For all his thousands of (often unwittingly) of followers none can exactly match the impact of The Nose or Diary of a Madman, simply because it was so utterly, unconventionally new and unheard of and original.
In The Nose, a baker wakes up to find a nose in his morning bread. Across the city another man, someone of very minor officialdom, find his nose missing. It is revealed, after the baker fails to dispose of the nose on a bridge, that the nose has gone off and tried to pass itself off as a titular Councillor, and is actually quite successful.
It ends with the reunion of nose and face. Some say it is symbolic, some find political indications in the story - others just enjoy it for what it is and are happy not to define it (Surreal, Absurd etcetera, etcetera), myself being one.
Gogol's other well known story is The Overcoat. Rightly it takes its place among Gogol's most masterful and mature works, but at the same time it is equally absurd, funny and original. I will not go into the plot, in the hope that you will read it if you have not already. But to say that its protagonist (poor, poor man) can be viewed as the archetype for decades, coming onto centuries of anti-heroes and the classic Bartleby type character, unfortunates and geeks would not be going too far.
It was not with any sort of high minded nepotism that Nabokov said Gogol was the greatest prose writer in Russian, with Tolstoy following behind. Many would agree, and Nabokov made the statement with authority - few understood the art of Russian prose better than he. So much of what Gogol wrote is without a doubt the blueprint for so much of what followed, and is still to come. And we have to wonder, if we go further, if that world dominion of all online search engines took its name from the world’s greatest short story writer. Someone should look into that.