Thursday, July 20, 2017

Thoreau at 200

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know that I have been ecstatically excited for months now about a book I'm handling publicity for in my day job at the University of Chicago Press: Laura Dassow Walls's new definitive biography of Henry David Thoreau. I've been a Thoreau reader for years--since the publication of the one-volume edition of his journals by the NYRB Classics line a few years back, he's been an almost daily companion--but Laura's book showed me a depth and complexity, and an aliveness, that I didn't think possible. It's an incredible book. If you don't want to take my word for it, take a look at the roundup of praise I put together for the Press blog last week on Thoreau's bicentennial.("Superb," "compelling," "a great service to American letters," "remarkable," "engaging," "every page feels essential," and so on . . . )

This all sent me back to Walden for the first time since I was 19. I knew from having read Laura's insightful chapter on it that it was a more heterogeneous, more strange book than I recalled or than its general reputation might have it, but I still wasn't prepared: it's nothing like a straightforward account of time in the woods. If it were published today, it would be structured carefully, from his decision to set out on this experiment through the moment he returned home, and its observations would be carefully arranged, themes and larger points drawn through the book in a way to maximize their impact.

Instead, it's a grab-bag of Thoreau's thoughts. It's more like reading his journal than I expected. He opens with the idea of moving to the woods, then immediately veers off into extended thoughts on other related topics. It's about 40 pages before he gets back to the details of his experiment in living--and then almost immediately he veers off again. Like everything he wrote, it is driven by his broad and intense interests, by what's engaging him at a particular moment--and, ultimately and most importantly, by his keenly observing eye. He never merely looked at the world: he looked closely, and thought about the meaning and importance of what he saw.

A century and a half after publication, many of Walden's phrases are familiar, repeated so much that they've become barnacled unto cliche. But if you can even briefly see some of them fresh, their power--both of ideas and of phrasing, is undeniable. I'll leave you with one from late in the book. Try to see it as if you've not known these lines before; see if you feel the thrill I did.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less comples, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
Happy summer, folks.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Westlake on Screen



Way back in April, I mentioned that I would be curating a festival of Donald Westlake on screen at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. The festival happened in mid-May, and it was an absolute delight. I had never seen so many movies in such a short time--seven in just over two full days--but they were good enough and varied enough that I enjoyed all of it. The highlights were definitely seeing Point Blank and The Grifters for the first time on the big screen; seeing them with an audience added substantially to the experience, especially of the latter. I'd seen The Grifters twice before, but never had it seemed so powerful.

The other highlight was the Friday night panel I led with Abby Westlake, Lawrence Block, and Luc Sante. The conversation wandered comfortably and entertainingly.



We learned, among other things, that Luc first encountered Westlake as a young man through a French translation of The Handle, that Abby worked for a while in the 1970s abridging novels to run in Cosmo ("I did Jaws. It was easy: I just took out all the sex. Plenty of that elsewhere in the magazine."), and that Larry once had a book adapted for audio in which the abridgment cut out the fact that one of the main characters was a lesbian. Best of all, though, was when we got to talking about Westlake's unused screenplay for the 18th Bond film--which eventually was released as Tomorrow Never Knows. The producers had told him they wanted him to figure out a way to destroy Hong Kong without bombs. "So," said Abby, "he called up Norman Foster and said, 'If you wanted to destroy Hong Kong, how would you do it?'" You know, Norman Foster, legendary British architect. As one does. (The screenplay ultimately wasn't used, but Westlake took its central conceit and wrote a novel with it, a thriller that wasn't published until last month, when Hard Case Crime released it under the title Forever and a Death. It's a satisfying thriller, and worth buying for the afterword from the Bond producer alone, which gets into why Westlake's idea didn't work for them and delivers some good Westlake trivia that even I didn't know.)
In the run-up to the festival, I wrote a piece about Westlake and movies on spec for a publication that didn't end up using it, so I figured I'd share it here. If any of this piques your interest, I'd heartily recommend you seek out the movies. They're a lot of fun.

Westlake on Screen

I have a confession to make, perhaps an embarrassing one. When Abby Westlake invited me to go through the working files of her late husband, crime writer Donald E. Westlake, in order to put together a collection of his nonfiction, I silently harbored hopes that I would learn the secret. Somewhere in there, I imagined, would be evidence of how he did it—how he learned so much seemingly real information about how the secret society of heisters he wrote about so well actually did their work in our world. Letters from anonymous criminal sources, prison interviews, or notes from clandestine interviews with hard men from the wrong side of the law.

How naive I was. I didn't find any of that. It turns out that Westlake really did make it all up. The secret meetings, the complicated communications methods, the IDing of jobs and buying of plans, the dealers in guns and fake documents: all of it—buttressed, I'm sure, by some regular old library research—came from Westlake's head. It's convincing because he was very good at his job. And his job was making things up.

What I did learn from those files was that writing, for someone like Westlake who spent more than half a century making the whole of his living from it, was very much a job, the writer essentially the single proprietor of a small business. Westlake mostly wrote novels, so there wasn't a lot of evidence of the sort of hustling a freelancer has to do, pitching and following up. But there were files and files of correspondence about the background work that was required before he could sit down and hammer out the creative part: exchanges with agents about rights and reprints, with editors about titles, copy editors about corrections. Among the most telling was a letter he would photocopy regularly, merely changing the date, asking to be let out of jury duty because his labor was his sole source of income, and if he didn't work, his family didn't eat.

The most surprising discovery for me was just how much time—and how much of Westlake's business—was tied up with film and television. I knew that a number of his books had been made into movies, but I had no idea how much back and forth there was about not just those projects, but countless others that never saw the light of day. Queries from his agent about possible adaptations (among the most intriguing being an inquiry about a Dawn Powell novel), contracts for spec scripts, sales and renewals of options on published work. And the vast majority of that work, so many of those contracts and payments and scripts, went for naught. In an interview with Albert Nussbaum in 1974, Westlake rattled off a list of ten of his books that had been optioned and turned into screenplays, with no resulting movie. I would call the process of getting a film made from a book Darwinian, except that there's little sign that it's the the fittest that survive.

Among the projects that didn't make it are a couple of extremely tantalizing might-have-beens. Westlake wrote a screenplay for Dashiell Hammett's nihilistic masterpiece Red Harvest that was never produced. According to his friend Ethan Iverson, who discussed it with him, Westlake rewrote Hammett's story considerably to fix what he saw as a major problem: that the mystery that brings the Continental Op into the action is solved about a third of the way in, leaving his continued involvement (and the subsequent Elizabethan tragedy–level body count) hard to justify. Given how much of an acknowledged influence Hammett was on Westlake, it's a shame we never got to see his own take on the master's bloodiest book.

Then there's the failed James Bond screenplay. In 1995, producer Jeff Kleeman, a lifelong Westlake fan, invited him to write a screenplay for what was to be the eighteenth Bond film, The World Is Not Enough. Westlake jumped at the chance . . . but a long string of events, including pressure ensuing from the surprise success of the seventeenth Bond, Goldeneye, and concerns about scenes set in the growing market of China, led to its being scrapped. In this case, Westlake was able to salvage something: he transformed his screenplay into a novel, Forever and a Death, which was just published by Hard Case Crime.

Then there are the films of Westlake's work that made it to the screen but probably shouldn't have. There's The Split, from the novel of the same name, which starred Diahann Carroll and Jim Brown; of their complete lack of chemistry a friend of Westlake's said, "Now we know the sound of two blocks of wood making love." Another friend called The Bank Shot "a farce shot in extreme close-up, so whenever someone slipped on a banana peel all you knew was that they'd left the frame'; critic Terence Rafferty simply said it was "absolutely dreadful." And Jimmy the Kid, a vehicle for child actor Gary Coleman at the height of his power, was so bad Westlake himself never bothered to watch it. (And we won't even talk about the deservedly short-lived "Love Boat on land" TV series Supertrain, which he co-created and wrote.)

That does leave us, however, with a number of true classics—and they're satisfyingly varied in style and approach. The depictions of his most lasting character, the taciturn heister Parker, are particularly striking as an example of the challenge of adaptation. Between Point Blank, in 1967, and Parker, in 2013, Parker (usually under other names) was played by Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, Jim Brown, Mel Gibson, Jason Statham, and, strangest of all, Anna Karina. A friend quipped, "I think the character lacks definition." But while the variation may be extreme, the problem the adaptations were attempting to address is straightforward: how to bring to the screen a character who not only is at least borderline sociopathic but also is known through his actions rather than his extremely rare words? In Point Blank, director John Boorman opted to let Lee Marvin carry the film with his sheer physicality, amplified by mod design and saturated southern California light. For The Outfit, John Flynn added a sidekick, Joe Don Baker, and a love interest played by Karen Black, but he kept the tone of the movie tough. Gibson's Payback, according to Westlake, "layered cutesy on top of earnest [and] came up with smarm." Parker, meanwhile, simply softened its lead: Jason Statham is a powerful physical presence, but his Parker not only talks more than his novelistic counterpart—he talks about his code . . . of honor.

Anna Karina, meanwhile, only plays Parker in the loosest sense, in a film, Jean-Luc Godard's Made in U.S.A., that is only based on a Westlake work in the loosest—yet, crucially, still legally actionable—sense. In 1965, French film producer Georges de Beauregard bought the film rights to Westlake's sixth Parker novel, The Jugger. When he stopped making scheduled payments, Westlake and his agent assumed the project was off. The next year, however, a friend pointed Westlake to an interview in which Godard mentioned having just made a film based on the book. A lengthy lawsuit followed, and the film wasn't shown in the United States for more than forty years. When American audiences finally saw it for the first time in 2009, it turned out to be, well, a Godard film. (Which might have suited Westlake just fine: he regularly referred to The Jugger as his least favorite of his novels.)

Westlake worked in comedy as much as in hard-boiled fiction, and Parker's comic counterpart, John Dortmunder, has his own serious fanbase. But if Parker has had so-so luck on screen, Dortmunder—true, let's be clear, to his own fatalistic form—has fared worse. Of the out-and-out turkeys noted above, two (Bank Shot and Jimmy the Kid) are Dortmunder stories. One, however, succeeded: The Hot Rock paired a screenplay by William Goldman—who, unusually, talked in depth with Westlake about the characters before setting out to write—with Robert Redford near his height and turned out a comedy that, as Roger Ebert put it, "is a long way from being the perfect caper movie, but bless it, has two or three scenes good enough for any caper movie ever made."

Unexpectedly, however, it's possible that Westlake's most lasting contribution to cinema was one of his adaptations: his screenplay for Stephen Frears's film of Jim Thompson's The Grifters, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1990. "I think what attracted me to Stephen," wrote Westlake in 1999, "was that in a world of manic enthusiasm, here at last I'd met a fellow pessimist." Frears, however, got him to sign on by emphasizing (relative) optimism.

Westlake had decided to decline the job because he thought the story was too grim; it was only when Frears argued that the story belongs not to small-time con man Roy, who dies, but to his mother, Lily, who—ruthlessly—lives, that Westlake saw his way to writing it. The result, carried by great performances from Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening, and John Cusack, is one of the great noirs of modern Hollywood.

In the interview with Albert Nussbaum, Westlake said, "I subscribe basically to the theory that a movie is not the book it came from, and in almost every case it shouldn't be the book it came from. . . . The responsibility for a movie is not as easy to define as the responsibility for a novel." None of the films that were made from Donald Westlake's books are as pure Westlake as the originals. None is an adequate substitute. Yet they all—or at least all the good ones—carry his fingerprints. They're tough and serious, yet wry about the world and suspicious of our belief that we can exert control over it, tightly plotted, and full of action. Westlake enjoyed quoting what Stephen Frears whispered to him at the opening night party for The Grifters: "Well, we got away with it." What more can a crime fan want?

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

My mysterious Texan correspondent

After a ridiculously long hiatus (which I'm tempted to explain in sub-Nabokovian style: work, summer), how 'bout I try to ease ever so gently back into this blogging thing?

I've received another missive from my anonymous occasional postcard correspondent from Texas. This one seems to have been inspired by the postcard itself, a scene of colonial punishment that led to thoughts of Sir Magnus Donners. Donners, a major minor character (if you'll allow it) in A Dance to the Music of Time, is known in gossip circles for having unusual sexual tastes--ill-defined, perhaps, but thought to include various forms of domination and bondage. Which gives the moment quoted on the reverse of the postcard, which occurs during a tour of Donners's country house, Stourwater, a frisson of light discomfort.





Always a pleasure to hear from Texas in this fashion. And to receive a missive that clarifies that it's dated according to the New Style.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Crime Scenes: Donald Westlake on Screen

On of the most surprising things I discovered when I was going through Donald Westlake's files in the process of editing The Getaway Car was just how much work he did in film and TV--and how much work that work entailed. The files were full of letters to and from agents, proposals that he write a treatment of this or that book, and even full screenplays that never saw the light of day. For every film that was made of one of Westlake's books, it seems, there were countless projects that never went anywhere, even though a fair amount of money (at least in book industry terms) changed hands.

That said, a fair number of films did get made--and a number of those were really good. Which you all will have a chance to see next month, as I'm co-curating a festival of Westlake films at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. Full information, including my notes on the films, is at the Museum's site. I like the lineup a lot. It's got a couple of straight adaptations, including the deliriously great Point Blank; one movie (Cops and Robbers) that he wrote first as a screenplay, then, after the film was finished, decided to turn into a novel; and two screenplays not tied to his books, including one original (The Stepfather) and one adaptation (The Grifters, for which he received an Oscar nomination). The Grifters and Point Blank are legitimate classics, and I at least have never seen either on the big screen.

Opening night, following Point Blank, I'll take the stage with Abby Westlake and Luc Sante to talk about Westlake's Hollywood career. And I'll be there throughout the weekend. So if you're a Westlake fan and in or near New York, you should come out and say hi! It's going to be a lot of fun.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Byron

Lord Byron is one of those figures about whom I feel compelled to read--yet am very much glad never to have had to meet in the flesh. "He is as remorseless as he is unprincipled," wrote Mary Shelley, who was, let us remember, patient enough to put up with the all but intolerable Shelley. Were we to meet Byron, would his charm charm? Or would our (or my, at least) innate skepticism toward the hearty and demonstrative save us? It seems unlikely; it saved so few. Women, men--everyone fell for Byron. And no one loved Byron more than Byron. As Anthony Powell put it, "Shakespeare had an extraordinary grasp of what other people were like; Byron of what he himself was like."

I'm fresh off Fiona MacCarthy's excellent biography of the poet, which succeeds at the not simple task of making us see, at least to some extent, Byron's appeal, while never denying the ways in which he could be high-handed, unthinking, and cruel. She also helps us imagine his fame--which, rooted in a combination of class, scandal, a sense of generational change, and propelled by an epic poem published at the right moment, can be hard to grasp. Obviously no poets are parallel figures today--perhaps a particularly flamboyant film star? A Jude Law who also was the author of Infinite Jest? Yet however much we push ourselves to imagine a different era, when we open Childe Harold to its first lines we are instantly reminded of how vast is the gulf between then and now:
Oh, thou, in Hellas deemed of heavenly birth,
Muse, formed or fabled at the minstrel's will!
Since shamed full oft by later lyres on earth,
Mine dares not call thee from thy sacred hill:
Yet there I've wandered by thy vaunted rill;
Yes! sighed o'er Delphi's long-deserted shrine
Where, save that feeble fountain, all is still;
Nor mote my shell awake the weary Nine
To grace so plain a tale—this lowly lay of mine.
That's the poem that was such a sensation as to catapult its creator to stardom overnight. The later work Don Juan, at least, does open more promisingly--it's hard to top Byron's first lines there:
I want a hero, an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one.
But even it quickly descends into unpromising territory, its second and third stanzas dense with names of figures of contemporary fame. (To be fair, it does get much livelier.)

One reads about Byron today, however, not so much for himself--for the balance between his charm and his self-obsession is ever precarious, even in his truly wonderful letters and journals)--as for his place in his circle and his cultural moment, and for the way that everyone around him weighed in at some point. Mary Shelley's take is above; here's Claire Clairmont, writing a bitterly creative mock obituary:
He dead extended on his bed, covered all but his breast, which many wigged doctors are cutting open to find out (as one may be saying) what was the extraordinary disease of which this great man died--His heart laid bare, they find an immense capital I carved on its surface, and which had begun to pierce the breast--They are all astonishment. One says, "A new disease." Another: "I never had a case of this kind before." A third "what medicines would have been proper" the fourth holding up his finger "A desert island."
Then there's Byron's own takes on his contemporaries. Keats's poetry was "a Bedlam vision produced by raw pork and onions"; after Wordsworth published Poems, in Two Volumes, he wrote, "I reviewed Wordsworth's trash of the time." And there's his incessant baiting of Southey. This comes rom a letter to James Hogg: "Southey should have been a parish-clerk, and Wordsworth a man-midwife--both in darkness. I doubt if either of them ever got drunk, and I am of the old creed of Homer the wine-bibber." Then there was the very public assault in Don Juan:
Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey;
Because the first is crazed beyond all hope,
The second drunk, the third so quaint and mouthey.
Though I think we have to note that "mouthey" is little but a lazy answer to a thorny problem of rhyme, the charge of quaintness at least seems fair.

Now that I've finished MacCarthy's biography, and seen poor Byron safely dead in Missolonghi, I'm left with two outcomes: first, a desire, which I will probably act on this month, to read Don Juan for the first time in nearly twenty years, and, second, the list below, which I am beginning to think may be my greatest contribution to literary culture:
Mary Shelley: Kanga
Percy: Rabbit
Wordsworth: Owl
Keats: Piglet
Byron: Tigger
Charles Lamb: Pooh
My Twitter friend Hannah Hedgehog and my actual friend Caleb Crain both astutely noted that William Hazlitt can serve as Eeyore, at which point our Romantic Hundred Acre Wood is fully populated. As Anthony Powell wrote of some of the more scabrously satirical verses of Don Juan, "It surely must be admitted that this is the right sort of stuff."

Monday, February 13, 2017

Of Wars, Secret and Civil, the Marvel Way

Marvel Comics launched the twelve-issue Secret Wars miniseries on an unsuspecting public in 1984.



In that series, for the first time, nearly the whole universe of Marvel heroes and villains was brought together in a single story, a story that--though it took place in between issues of all the regular monthly books (despite the miniseries itself taking a year to run its course)--had immediate consequences, some major, for a number of long-running characters. The Thing left the Fantastic Four to go walkabout in space; Spider-Man suddenly had a new, alien costume. Secret Wars was a big, big deal.

For more than thirty years now, Marvel and DC have been trying to replicate that excitement, and the sales it generated. By the time the second Secret Wars series arrived in 1985, Marvel had figured out that they should run the events concurrently with the timeline of the monthlies, and explicitly tie in as many of them as possible. That's the formula they've repeated nearly every year since. Sometimes the scale is smaller--a series will be confined to the X books, or the Avengers-affiliated titles--but the concept is the same: make a big Event that readers will feel they can't miss, which will lead them to buy more comics.

The closest Marvel has come to repeating that success was with its Civil War series in 2006.




In that series,the accidental destruction of a whole town and its inhabitants by a relatively young, little-trained superhero team leads Congress to pass a superhuman registration act, requiring anyone with superpowers to register, and to essentially become a military or policing agent of the government. This splits the heroes, and that split is embodied in the rift that develops between longtime best friends Tony Stark, who supports registration, and Steve Rogers, who views it as un-American.

I was largely on a hiatus from reading comics when Civil War was published, and its obvious political incoherence kept me away for years. The biggest problem with superhero comics is that they rest on a concept of vigilante justice that is insane; though occasionally comics have taken that question seriously, for the most part if you're going to read superhero comics, you have to basically pretend it's not an issue--no series will hold up if you give that question serious thought. But that problem is at the heart of the dispute in Civil War. Tony Stark is right: you can't have superpowered vigilantes running around. Cap's position is indefensible. Yet the way the government uses the registration act, which includes secret prisons and "rehabilitated" criminals put to nefarious uses, makes Stark's position impossible as well.

Read today,  as I did (including every crossover--98 comics in all!) over the summer, Civil War remains almost wholly incoherent in its politics. What's most striking a decade on is how powerfully the issues bring back the air of America during the George W. Bush administration, to which the story is all but explicitly a reaction. For all the problems of the premise, and for all that the parallels are at times overplayed, the way it captures the inchoate, ambient fears and excesses of that period is striking.

What's most important, however, and what makes the story interesting despite its flaws, is that the central question is one that would divide heroes, along lines by which any fan could roughly sort them, and that say something interesting about the characters. Luke Cage, for example, is never going to trust the government, whereas Peter Parker can be coopted by Stark's authority and attention. It's a fundamentally interesting divide, and one that, especially when embodied by Steve and Tony, rests on, and draws power from, decades of storytelling.



For fans of long standing, watching Steve and Tony fight over a principle is painful, both because we've watched their friendship develop over decades and because we see how they each represent different aspects of heroism. They're at their best when they're working together; when they're irreconcilable, heroism feels imperiled to a degree that a villain like Doctor Doom can never threaten.

This past year, Marvel went back to the well for Civil War II. And while the politics of it are more interesting, the dividing question more legitimate, the results weren't nearly as good. The question? If you've got a hero whose power brings him visions of future crimes and disasters, how should you use that power? Can you ethically detain (or worse) people who have yet to commit a crime? Well, of course you can't. But what if he sees that the person in question is going to kill thousands and thousands of people?

Not an uninteresting dilemma, right? The problem, however, is that it's not a dilemma that naturally sorts people. It doesn't quite speak to a person's character or background the same way that registration did. (You could ally it to racial profiling, certainly, and get somewhere in sorting some characters, but that doesn't end up playing a big part for many characters in this story, in part perhaps because even today, after strenuous (and I think honest) efforts, the Marvel Universe remains pretty white.) The key antagonists this time, rather than Captain America and Tony Stark, are Captain Marvel and Tony Stark--and you could imagine either one on the other side without a lot of trouble. (Want to guess? OK: Captain Marvel is pro-precog crime prevention, Tony against.) The same goes for nearly every other character. So rather than a battle of ideologies, we get, well, just battles.

 That said, the series did lead to two comics that I'm quite grateful for, and that demonstrate almost to a T the potential of endless serial narratives that continue for decades. Both are mostly about characters talking, with little to no fighting; they're about people coming to terms with themselves and their relationships to each other. In one, Invincible Iron Man #14, by Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Deodato, Tony goes to an AA meeting to get his head straight and focus on something other than the battle with Captain Marvel.



At the meeting, however, is . . . Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers, who is also a recovering alcoholic.



Their dialogue, constrained initially by the setting, which they both respect, is tentative, difficult, tense.



It feels real, and it feels like an actual place where these characters, with their backstories, together and apart, might have ended up.

The other is Scarlet Witch #9, by James Robinson and Joelle Jones, in which Wanda's brother, Pietro, the speedster known as Quicksilver, arrives to basically order her to sign up with Captain Marvel.



Pietro has been a persistent difficulty Wanda's whole life, in the way of siblings but taken a bit further. He's always been a domineering hothead, ready to give orders and judge and condemn while rarely looking at his own actions.



This time, for a number of  reasons, Wanda has had enough. Watching Pietro realize that something has changed, that this relationship is now what it was, is wonderful for anyone who's been reading about these characters for decades.



Each of these stories is only twenty-two pages. The total word count can't be more than a couple thousand. But because these stories rest on nearly fifty years of earlier stories, we get so much from every panel, every word of dialogue; we see its refractions back through time and memory. It ends up bearing so much more weight, so much more power, than any standalone story could.

Month to month, reading superhero comics as an adult can be frustrating. No other medium with which I'm involved is as clearly deformed by the needs of the marketplace (like in its endless crossovers, to take but one example). So often it fails to realize its potential, brought down by simplicity, pathology, or the low and narrow expectations of its fan base. But every once in a while you get a comic like these two, and you remember why you're drawn to this medium, the connection it makes between your long-gone childhood self and the adult you who knows better but still looks to stories of people and events that are larger than ourselves but nonetheless, time and again, resolve to the human.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Rachel Cusk's Transit

Sometimes a novel captures you from the first lines, and it takes you a while to figure out quite why. Here's Rachel Cusk's Transit (2016):
An astrologer emailed me to say she had important news for me concerning events in my immediate future. She could see things that I could not: my personal details had come into her possession and had allowed her to study the planets for their information. She wished me to know that a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky. This information was causing her great excitement when she considered the changes it might represent. For a small fee she would share it with me and enable me to turn it to my advantage.
I was sold. Part of what drew me in is obvious: the audacity of opening with a spam e-mail; the matter-of-fact prose; the simple past tense of the first sentence, refusing as it does to offer any temporal or physical scene-setting beyond "this happened," and thereby throwing us right in the stream of "this is happening."

It was only once I got well into the novel, and flipped back to reread the opening lines, that I realized the deeper attraction: Cusk, through her protagonist, was giving someone else the floor. That the person was lying, that their lie was banal, commercial, mattered not. They were speaking, and Cusk's protagonist was listening.

That, I realized, is why reading Transit is such a thrilling, engulfing experience. It's a novel about listening. Cusk's protagonist, Faye, is a writer who has recently returned to London after a divorce and is juggling a remodeling of her new flat with the responsibilities of divided parenthood. But that's what we get in the interstices. Most of the novel consists of other people telling stories about what's going on in their lives, and telling them with typical solipsism and self-dramatization. They're largely unremarkable stories of contemporary London life, but Cusk imbues them with the interest and drama of a story told you by an old friend.

I'll give you one extended example, which I suspect won't carry a lot of weight outside the context of the book, but will at least let me try out one theory of how Cusk makes them, in toto, so compelling. Here, an acquaintance at a dinner party tells Faye about her childhood and her own experience of parenting:
Her own parents, she said, had been a real love story: they had never wavered in their attention to one another through all the years of their marriage, despite the fact that they were bringing up five children so close in age that in the family photo albums her mother had appeared to be continuously pregnant for several years . They were young parents, she added, and tirelessly energetic: her childhood had been one of camping trips and sailing expeditions and summers in the cabin the had built with their own hands. Her parents never went off on holiday on their own, and treated all family occasions with great ceremony, eating with their children every night around the kitchen table, to the extent that she could not remember a single evening meal when they were absent, which must have meant that they rarely, if ever, went out to dinner together. While Jonathan and I, she added, eat in restaurants nearly every night. She left for work so early and returned to late, she went on, that she almost never aw Ella eat at all, though of course the nanny fed her the correct food, as Jonathan and Birgid had instructed her to. To be perfectly honest, Birgid said, I actually avoid Ella's mealtimes--I find myself things to do in the office instead. Since Ella's birth Jonathan had started to make roast meat and potatoes for lunch on Sunday, as it was a tradition in his family and he thought they should repeat it for Ella's sake.

But I don't really like to eat at lunch, she said, and Ella is fussy, so Jonathan ends up eating most of it on his own.
See what I mean? There's not much to it: this is a story of contemporary parenting being told to us by someone it's been told to. But when you pile story on story, when you realize that Faye is actively listening to everyone she meets, each of the stories gains interest, power. And Faye's occasional pressing and stray responses ("It was an interesting thought, that stability might be seen as the product of risk.") remind us that one of the ways we test our apprehension of the world is by listening to, and pushing against, the way that others apprehend and attempt to explain it.

Then there's the quality of judgment. We justly prize empathy in artworks--the "Everyone has his reasons" of The Rules of the Game--admiring the ability of writers like Tolstoy to show us each person, in his error, without damning him for it. It's weak novels that judge.

But we are judging beings. We may fight it, but it's there. And as Faye tells us these stories, even though she utters nary a word of explicit judgment, we realize that she, too, is judging. These people, time and again, are failing in key ways. Life and limitations make it inevitable, and we teach ourselves to acknowledge that, to cut people slack, but the judging faculty never wholly atrophies. What makes Faye's implicit judgment so bracing is, in part, simply that Cusk is acknowledging it. But more than that is the second layer: Faye is judging herself right alongside these people. Her own story barely takes shape in this book, told in asides and responses, but it has its own failures, the biggest involving parenting: her sons appear primarily as troubled voices down a phone line, offering up problems she's too distant and distracted to solve. It's that dual, or maybe even treble, vision that elevates Transit to greatness: we are reading Cusk's account of a woman who has taken up listening, in part, perhaps, to defer thinking about her own life, and who finds herself unable to stop shadowing others' stories with her own, setting their actions alongside hers, judging herself as she's judging them. "How often people betrayed themselves by what they noticed in others," Faye thinks at one point.

That scrim, that remove, that sense that we are in Faye's mind while its foreground is being given over to listening to someone else, makes reading Transit an unusually absorbing experience. Attending closely to another mind even as some part of our own mind is weighing, assessing, judging what we're hearing--in a sense, Transit replicates the reading experience itself.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Caine Mutiny

The first book I read this year was a Herman Wouk's 1952 Pulitzer Prize winner The Caine Mutiny, a Christmas gift from a friend of discerning reading taste. Wouk's novel had the misfortune to be published a year after James Jones's From Here to Eternity, which won the National Book Award, as Wouk explained in a foreword to a 2003 paperback:
Early in 1951 there appeared a gigantic army novel, From Here to Eternity, at once beautiful and brutal. . . . It won critical hurrahs and instant vast popularity, and my book came out in its shadow to a discouragingly poor start.
However, in a reminder that the early 1950s were a different, distant era, Wouk goes on to say that sales began to perk up a bit, and then one particular retail decision fanned them into a flame:
The Doubleday people . . . advised me to go and see for myself at Macy's, which was having a price war on the two books with Gimbel's. . . . It was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime sight, people lining up through the department store and out into the street just to buy my novel, or From Here to Eternity, or both.
What also speaks powerfully of another era is what Wouk says he was told about early attempts to sell film rights: "Nobody is interested in World War II anymore." Just a bit more than five years after victory, another war--in which staggering numbers, by our contemporary standards, of American soldiers would be killed--quietly underway in Korea, and what people wanted, if the movie scouts were to be believed, was to move on.

You can understand it, certainly. Read any good memoir or novel that encompasses V-E Day and the weariness that underlies the relief is palpable. But at the same time, looking back at the literature from the period, we realize that while the men who served may have wanted to leave the war behind, it wasn't quite done with them yet.

The Caine Mutiny is an interesting example of that. It's in a lot of ways a distinctly untroubled book, given the subject, but at the same time it's about how the war years turned a whole lot of callow boys into men. Wouk's main character, Willie Keith, sees the Navy simultaneously as his duty and, once he gets there, as a job. Through the course of the book's 500+ pages, he'll struggle with the central fact of military service: that it's designed to strip you of your individuality in order to serve a larger goal, and that to do so it has to in many ways be a dumb, brutal, machine-like system. But whereas James Jones's Robert Prewitt is determined to fight that machine, even if it costs him everything, Willie Keith is focused on living through the experience, and helping his shipmates do the same. Reading about Prew is a bracing, troubling experience; reading about Willie Keith's service is like watching a version of the growth and maturation we all (one hopes) experienced in our early adulthood. As a portrait of that process, and its acceleration in wartime, The Caine Mutiny is wholly convincing.

What remains most interesting about it after all these decades, however, is the turn it takes partway through. (Given the prominence of the film version, I'll assume there's little that can surprise you, but if you've not read or seen it, you might want to stop reading here.) Up through the titular mutiny, we've more or less been on Willie Keith's side. We see his flaws, and we do get some other perspectives, but he's our focal point and the character who most readily draws our sympathy. So when the mutiny occurs, and Keith plays a major part, we blow right past our nagging questions about its propriety. The moment is dramatic, and our protagonist has chosen a side, so we align. But then . . . the trial comes, and Wouk does something remarkable: he shows us how Keith was wrong--and therefore, by extension, so were we. Neither side is clear-cut, but the very fact that Wouk is able to upend our understanding, push against our sympathy, is impressive, and  would in itself be enough to recommend the book. It's a feat of storytelling.

These days, The Caine Mutiny still lives to a large extent in the shadow of From Here to Eternity. Wouk is seen as a craftsman, Jones more like an artist; Jones's story of individuality and self-torment draws more interest than Wouk's tale of men setting out to do a difficult job. But both novels are worth reading, and both, I think, belong, with James Gould Cozzens's Guard of Honor and Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions, in the small group of essential novels about the war.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The post has arrived, or, We begin to read Clarissa

"The first impression the reader receives from Samuel Richardson's masterpiece is of its great length."

That's Angus Ross, opening his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, which, indeed, impresses by running to 1,499 oversized pages. And while I've long since been convinced by friends who have sung the novel's praises (including in this space) that Ross's next line--"and rightly so, since that is an integral part of the work's reach and meaning"--is true, and that the novel is worth reading, I've never been willing to make the commitment. As my friend Maggie put it:
I read nine other books while working my way through this one, and I'm haunted by what I could have read instead. Three Dickens! The entire works of Graham Greene!
I simply could never bring myself to commit the time. Even with as much and as quickly as I read, it would likely be a month's labor.

Enter my Twitter friend Stephanie Hershinow, scholar of eighteenth-century literature and  Richardson fan. At breakfast in New York last month, she revealed a scheme for reading Clarissa that seemed eminently manageable: read this epistolary novel by reading each letter on the date it carries, beginning with the first letter, dated January 10, and finishing with the last on December 18. A year of broken-up reading--this would do!

Now it is January 10, and I am embarking. You're welcome to join me, and some other folks who've been caught. There will be some posts here throughout the year, and if you're on Twitter you can find us at #Clarissa. The first letter is a mere two pages! Join us!

"I am extremely concerned, my dearest friend, for the disturbances that have happened in your family . . . "

Monday, December 19, 2016

2016

One of the great, if less heralded, discoveries of the literary world of Twitter and blogging is that, yes, those of us who read all the time are also always reading in all times. For every new novel being championed, there's someone out there ready to chat about diving back into Trollope, or just discovering P. G. Wodehouse. And, because there's little cachet in keeping up with the non-new, encountering company on the journey always feels extra special: you're there because you want to be there. This year more than ever, as the news insisted on being bad, the past between pages exerted a powerful pull.

Which brings me to my year-end list, such as it is. As usual, it's all hither and yon, disorganized and atemporal. There are new books here, certainly, but, as in any given year, the majority of what I read was by authors long dead, and they deserve a place, too. It's also incomplete, I'm sure. I read many, many very good books this year, books that surprised me or taught me things or opened new ways of thinking. They're not all here, probably because I didn't happen to spy them as I scanned my bookshelves tonight, but they were appreciated as I read them, and I'm sure they'll surface again, as good books do.

Herewith, some of the books that defined my year.

NONFICTION

Autumn: An Anthology of the Changing Seasons, edited by Melissa Harrison
This is the first I read of a series of four little paperback anthologies from the UK that bring together contemporary nature writers--of which that isle has plenty right now--and older works. The selections are short, making it a perfect bedside or morning coffee book. Perhaps the latter is better, because like all good nature writing the book leaves you more alert to the world you inhabit; as you step out the door on the all-too-routine walk to the office, a reminder that nature is never routine can be a blessing. (And now that winter is here, I've just started delving into that one, more as solace, perhaps, than in celebration.)

Silver Ley, by Adrian Bell
Having grown up in a farm family in a rural community, I've always been extremely skeptical of people who talk of going back to the land. What I always see ahead of them is shock at the labor and isolation, followed by failure in the face of the uneasy relationship between nature and commerce. This memoir, published in 1931 and brought back by Slightly Foxed, won me over despite. A young man from a genteel family of some modest means takes over a farm, along with the position in the town that accompanies it. It goes better than my dire predictions, but that's not the point. Rather, this is a quiet book about coming to terms with who you are, what you can do, and what you want from life and the people around you. It's beautiful and quietly sad.

Terms and Conditions, by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
I have come to trust the editors at Slightly Foxed to the degree that I now simply pick up whatever is new from them whenever I'm in London, regardless of author or subject. Terms and Conditions was my reward: a new history, rooted in countless interviews, of life at English girls' boarding schools from the 1940s to the 1970s, it is hilarious and shocking and strange and occasionally sad. Any reader who grew up pining to be shipped off to a glamorous boarding school or any Anglophile who simply can't ever get enough of the weirdness of the English will likely enjoy it. I recommend reading it in public or at family gatherings, because the looks people give when you reply to their questions about what you're reading are priceless.

William Morris, by Fiona MacCarthy
This is a classic of doorstop biography, and it earns its length and detail by presenting a compelling, complicated, largely admirable William Morris firmly ensconced in his historical, political, and cultural moment. This is one of those books that you're brought to by a thread from elsewhere--in my case, from Penelope Fitzgerald's book on his close friend Edward Burne-Jones and A. S. Byatt's short book on Morris--and that then sends you off in a dozen new directions. Thanks to MacCarthy, I feel I understand the Arts and Crafts movement like I never have, in all its ambitions, good intentions, and contradictions. This is the kind of book that makes me speak of biographers with awe.

Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies, by Alexandra Harris
I wrote a bit about this book for Open Letters Monthly already. Suffice it to say that I read it in March and find it still, nine months later, affecting my reading--yesterday, in the face of below-zero temperatures, it sent me to the Anglo-Saxon poets and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Harris offers far more than simply a run through the history of writing on the weather--instead, we feel we understand how the weather actually infuses English literature, all but inextricable from it. And Harris is splendid company: authoritative and confident yet welcoming, and consistently reliable in zeroing in on the most interesting parts of a story. It's a landmark.

Henry James, by Leon Edel
This really is just a lead in to . . .

FICTION

This year was dominated for me by Henry James. I read some new books that I liked very much (Elizabeth McKenzie's off-kilter The Portable VeblenMegan Abbott's fierce, obsessional You Will Know Me; Nina Stibbe's wonderfully comic Paradise Lodge, to take just three), but from the moment I dove into Edel's biography in February, I couldn't get James out of my mind. The James we meet in Edel's book is powerfully alive, and once I'd made his acquaintance I couldn't resist delving more deeply than before into his letters, masterpieces of the form, and then into his fiction--reading some previously unread novels, re-reading others, and recently embarking on what will be a long straight read-through of all his stories. This was the year that I finally knew I would eventually read all of Henry James.

Amid all this, I was proud to discover in Google Books The Henry James Year Book, a 1911 page-a-day book of James quotes that I was able to get republished by the University of Chicago Press as The Daily Henry James. It's been a source of consistent joy ever since, and a spur to continue every day to think about and engage with this man of great heart and great loneliness whose audacity in fiction was matched only by his caution in life. Few other writers draw my interest so powerfully to both their work and their lives--perhaps, in fact, only Virginia Woolf, who, like James, rarely put a paragraph to paper, fiction or nonfiction, public or private, that doesn't reward attention.

As the holidays approach, and I endeavor to replace frustration and tension and worry with the relative simplicity of gratitude, I'm grateful to these authors. They've been good company this year.

I'll leave you with a pleasingly dire quote from a letter James sent on January 1, 1893:
The year's end is a terrible thing, and the year's beginning is a worse.
And you? What did you read in 2016?