Thursday, September 29, 2011

Another Day in June

Mrs. DallowayMrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mrs. Dalloway may take a back seat to To the Lighthouse (to which I'm partial, for one), but it probably doesn't take a back seat to anything else in English prose fiction.  Like Ulysses, it takes place on a single day in June and it enters the thoughts of various Londoners (as opposed to Dubliners) on that day, often compelling different characters to reflect on one event, one object, one person from their many different vantages.  It's striking how often those different viewpoints agree, as opposed to disagree.  With an omniscience that hovers over all of London and thrusts itself confidently into any heart it wishes, Woolf creates a very firm sense of a fixed reality outside her diverse characters' minds, one that commands their attention and thought whether they like it or not.  This is both a departure from the relativism of the postmoderns (Woolf's characters have in no sense 'created' their own reality) and a feat of writerly verisimilitude.  I hate to compare this book to Ulysses, since I've been under Joyce's spell since I was 19 and still worship him, but there is something leaner, more elegant, more coldly beautiful--like a Bernini sculpture--something more profound even, in Woolf's affirmation of life.  For one thing, the alternative to that affirmation is made plainer in Woolf than in Joyce; in Woolf that alternative in self-destruction and despair is as real to her suicidally-depressed characters as it was to the author herself.  The dialectic between the despairing Septimus Warren Smith and the life-embracing Clarissa Dalloway makes Woolf's June book somehow more necessary than Joyce's.  The stakes are higher.  The narration is more stout-hearted as it insists on visualizing the grimmest coordinates on the map of human emotion.  Joyce pays the price in his art, perhaps, for having it a little bit easier in his life.

View all my reviews

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Gallows Songs

Gallows SongsGallows Songs by Christian Morgenstern
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I discovered Christian Morgenstern and his collection of poems called Gallows Songs (or Galgenlieder in the original German) while researching my novel The Jump Artist; Morgenstern was one of the many writers Philippe Halsman read while in Innsbruck Prison in 1928 and 1929.

The University of Michigan Press jacket copy says that this mysterious poet died in 1914 at the age of 43 and describes the world he created in Gallows Songs as one of "delight, dread, and unexpectable realities."   I don't speak German, so it's impossible for me to know how faithful W.D. Snodgrass and Lore Segal's translations are to the original style and content.  I'm suspicious of verse translations that rhyme as these do in the translated English, but they're really breathtaking.  Morgenstern--or at any rate the collaboration between Morgenstern and his interpreters--created a work that's tuned to some beautiful and strange frequency of the mind and heart.  The poems are mysterious, encoded and free associative like dreams, and yet they're coherent in the way dreams are nonsensical and still coherent.  The poems seem to trace sequences of real events. They speak like dreams to an intelligent but magical and emotional part of the mind and there elaborate a mood before the reader knows it.  Reading Morgenstern is akin to listening to music--to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or Schoenberg's atonal sounds.  It's askew and somehow right and as it should be, and all about life and death in a minuscule space, just like a dream.  "Here one may find the Gallows Brothers swaying in the wind or meet those two eccentric spirits Palmstrom and Korf, their incredible theories, their insane and brilliant inventions, their Competition in Nocturnes," the unusually soulful and helpful book jacket says.

The Morgenstern together with illustrations by Paul Klee makes for a distinctively, passionately, exquisitely, magnificently modernist art object.

Palmstrom observing his candles:

There do this dreamer's eyes behold
On the fabled white escarpments
Undaunted myriads of the sun's pilgrims.

And in the next poem, thinking of the Alps in his bed:

190,000 feet he lies
Over Tschirn, seeing the stars, fistsize

And in the next one, baptizing a poodle:

The still unbaptized poodle of Fritz Kunkel
Was purchased by Von Korf's step-foster-uncle.

You heard him right, ladies and gentlemen: The still unbaptized poodle of Fritz Kunkel / Was purchased by Von Korf's step-foster-uncle.  Just FYI.

View all my reviews

Friday, September 16, 2011

Reality Is a Dream -- You Wish

Partial Magic: The Novel as Self-Conscious GenrePartial Magic: The Novel as Self-Conscious Genre by Robert Alter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Ever since Gutenberg," Robert Alter writes, "the conditions of mechanical reproduction made it necessary for the individual artist to swim against a vast floodtide of trash out of all proportion to anything that had existed before in cultural history...."  And when the furnace of time has digested the trash-heap of twentieth-century literary criticism, one hopes that Robert Alter's brilliant oeuvre will endure and stand forth for its clarity of vision and purity of heart.  Finishing a book by Robert Alter is like bench-pressing 500 pounds, the same way I feel when I finish wrestling with a classic.  At the end of the book, I feel I'm standing atop a mountain.  I feel the climb in my legs but I see the heavens and the earth from my new vantage point.  Alter seems to have read every book and to speak every language, and yet he's immune to pretense and to fads.  His often beautiful prose elevates criticism to art and his evidence-based analysis of texts is as scientific in its method as writing on literature can be.

This study of self-consciousness in the novel from Don Quixote to Claude Mauriac's 1961 The Marquise Went Out at Five contains indispensable help in understanding the Cervantes masterpiece, as well as Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, and Nabokov's Pale Fire.  As in any Alter text, he shines plenty of light on many other books in passing.  He situates modernism between 19th-century realism and the more self-conscious works that followed in a helpful way, and draws a very useful distinction between self-conscious novels which concern themselves with reality and those novels of "flaunted artifice" that are card tricks for the sake of the trick.  (Alter refers to some of John Barth's work as an example of such fictions that don't heed the complexities of reality.)  Self-conscious novels that pursue realism do so, according to Alter, by charting the dynamics by which imagination acts on the raw material of reality.  Self-conscious novels that lose themselves in artifice demonstrate a sort of avoidant pathology--and it's precisely that pathology which is the focus of good self-conscious works about the imagination.  There is only one reply to a novel that takes seriously the notion that 'reality is a dream.'  And that is: you wish.

View all my reviews