David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: childhood (page 2 of 5)

Dennis Potter: Blue Remembered Hills

I was thinking about this old tv play (available entirely on youtube, hooray) in connection with two other old French films about childhood that I recently saw, Naked Childhood and My Little Loves. As much as they do their best to deromanticize childhood, this one may have them beat, and not just because adults are playing the children. The French movies all have alienation in one way or another, but there’s not a lot of that here: these are younger kids before the age of introspection. And what a terrible age it is. In the absence of the cuteness of little kids (the actors are mostly rough-looking except for Helen Mirren, who looks somewhat gangly but mostly looks like Helen Mirren), what shows through?

First there is fear. The boys are adventure-mag and war-informed, but they have yet to grasp the size of the world and so they are quite scared that the war is very close to them and very real. When they aren’t playing little war games among themselves, they are quite terrified that they are all going to die at German hands, even in a remote forest in England. Many of their fathers are away and some are missing, and the children switch back between having no sense of the reality of it and being frightened by the Germans as bogeymen, the sort of monsters you’re repeatedly told aren’t real, except these are. That wrenching movement between the serious and the frivolous is what stays, and lord knows it’s a good thing that kids have it, because the bare fear looks horrific.

They do have one other positive mechanism, which is camaraderie. The boys and girls fight with each other, but when there is a threat, even an imagined one, the kids are suddenly all in it together, and they know that they are the protagonists and the evil Germans are the bad guys, so at least they’re all on the same side. This even extends, to a point, to the miserable outcast of the group, the boy called Donald Duck who is mercilessly teased and demeaned. When the war games are over, the rest of the kids indulge in some rampant cruelty–the third main motif–against Donald that ends up going very badly for him, and too late, the others realize that they crossed the line and they feel bad. Though they mostly make excuses for themselves, they do acknowledge a certain undebatable humanity on his part. It’s small consolation for Donald, but it does draw a certain line.

Poor Donald, though, since up until that point he has been an outcast and the only one really excluded from any compassion from the others. He blubbers and he is really, truly frightened, and so he is deprived of the any of the consolation of camaraderie, and he gets stuck in the fear. It’s not just loneliness, though the lack of support he feels from anyone else is palpably agonizing, but it’s also that by lacking that communal outlet to play together and have adventures, he is locked in one of the most miserable places that a person can be, before a child learns that they aren’t always going to be so completely helpless and alone. It’s wretched to watch.

Roberto Bolaño: The Savage Detectives

Q: You are Chilean, Spanish or Mexican?

A: I am Latin American.

(Roberto Bolaño)

This is a long book–too long, in fact–but it makes its point. Bolano, who died a few years back as a consequence of alcoholism, drug abuse, and assorted other consequences of extreme living (read the New Yorker profile of Bolaño for an overview), wrote a lot of short books and two very long books, including this one. And not only does it play at being autobiography, but also at a bildungsroman, as it follows “Arturo Belano” and his friend Ulises Lima from Mexico to Europe to Africa. But given Bolaño’s life, it reads as the only bildungsroman he could have written: a paean to the costs and benefits of never growing up. The bildung is entirely ironic, or negative.

The setup, in the words of James Wood:

“The Savage Detectives” was published in 1998, but its heart belongs to the Mexico City of the mid-1970s, when Bolaño was an avant-garde poet bristling with mad agendas. Like much of his work, the novel is craftily autobiographical. Its first section is narrated in the form of a diary, by a 17-year-old poet named Juan García Madero who is on the make, erotically and poetically, and who has been asked to join a gang of literary guerillas who have named themselves the “visceral realists.” The group is led by two young poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, a wild duo who appear elsewhere in Bolaño’s work (in “Amulet,” for instance). Lima is based on one of Bolaño’s friends, the poet Mario Santiago, and Belano is based on … Bolaño.

Yet for this scenario, there isn’t a lot of literature in the book. Much of the so-called literary discussion is nothing more than trivialities, like Garcia Madero quizzing his friends on obscure poetic terms, and so-called “visceral realism” is, it is made clear, a mere platform for attacking the many betes noires of Lima and Belano (and Bolaño), particularly Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda. Bolaño never slips: the book is entirely committed to showing literature as a lifestyle and not as an artwork, and what it extracts.

Much has been made of the book’s structure, and justifiably so. It is sandwich-shaped, with two shorter bookends taking place in 1975 and 1976 of the diaries of Juan Garcia Madero, and the main section narrating events episodically from 1977 to 1996 with intermittent flashbacks to 1976. The first section shows most of the benefits of the characters’ lifestyle, and it is not without some irritation that I read through one hundred pages of Juan sleeping his way through his fellow women poets and talking big with his fellow male poets. This irritation is intentional, because when things of consequence start happening, they are exactly the product of the sort of indulgent childish lives of wastedness that the visceral realists have been living. The rest of the book details the costs.

Even in that first part, we don’t forget that they are children: the visceral realists are people in their late teens and early 20s. Even Belano, who was imprisoned by Pinochet’s government in Chile after the coup before returning to Mexico, treats his experiences in the detached, solipsistic way a writer would: his politics are vague and more visceral than intellectual. The Chilean experience is only alluded to, while the book slides into a soap opera plot about Belano, Lima, and Garcia Madero going on the run with a girl trying to escape from her murderous thug boyfriend. If this sounds dissonant in summary, it doesn’t on the page, but it is terribly disconcerting, when the soap opera seems more real than Allende and Pinochet. So it is with adolescents. Bolaño hardly shied away from political topics, embracing them explicitly in works like By Night in Chile, but here he intentionally resists them because they are at odds with his characters and subject matter, and this is part of the tragedy he is trying to convey.

We return to the soap opera of 1976 at the book’s end, after having seen Belano disappear into civil war Liberia after nearly getting killed there, having stopped drinking due to a liver ailment that has doomed him to an early death (as one did Bolaño, killing him in 2003). Yet there hasn’t even been a progression during the middle section, and this is significant. Scenes from 1976 keep acting as a magnetic attractor as the other recollections move forward in time, arresting any sense of forward progression. Since the middle section of the sandwich is so diffuse, containing recollections from dozens of characters who never recur, many of who only had the most tangential interactions with Belano and Lima, no robust narrative emerges as a counterweight to Garcia Madero’s diary, and Garcia Madero himself is definitively absent from the middle section. The overall sense is that indeed, all of these characters’ lives ended in 1976, as Garcia Madero’s seems to have, and what is playing out afterwards in the middle section is a kind of afterlife purgatory of the sort Alasdair Gray brilliantly portrayed in the last two books of Lanark: a purgatory in which the characters wander lost without development. It is in this way, and no other that I can find, that the book makes sense, and a fatalistic, depressing sense indeed.

There are moments in the book–only moments–where the priorities change. The first is the horrific story of Auxilio Lacouture who hides in a bathroom for almost two weeks while the Mexican Army occupies her university in 1968 (she recounts this in late 1976 in the forward timestream of the book). She proclaims herself “the mother of Mexican poetry.” In the language of the book, this means that she, like Garcia Madero, disappears completely after 1976. Bolaño does not call attention to her disappearance, but it is crucial for the narrative that she vanish from the book: she represents the mother of all that is damaged and cannot survive. (It is at this crucial episode, however, that Bolaño’s writing falters, as Auxilio talks like a man, as happens with many of his most significant female characters.)

The other moment is the Liberian civil war, and it must be there that Belano vanishes, because it is there that his childhood truly runs out, as he seems to be faced with something he cannot comprehend.

And yet, Bolaño has stacked the deck, for Belano gets divorced and does not have children; Bolaño remained married and had two children. Belano lives on alone, near-suicidal in his excursions. Bolaño escaped, but for the sake of the narrative of Latin American and Latin America’s writers, Belano is sacrificed. The pathos is complete.

I am not in love with Bolaño in the way that Matthew details in his entry on Bolaño. As the work of a man who was racing against time to produce something urgent and vital, it is appropriately striking and direct. But The Savage Detectives, for all its careful construction, doesn’t quite have the juice to justify its conceit: Bolaño doesn’t quite manage to complete the circle to link Belano’s adventures in Liberia to the final 1976 episode with Garcia Madero. And the very end of the book, rather than making excuses, appears to acknowledge exactly that incompletion. Bolaño proclaims the imperfection of his work, and implies that perfection has gone to death with all his young characters. While not a satisfying ending, it is one I accept.

Inquest on Left-Brained Literature

Excuse me while I get all Franco Moretti on you readers here. I work among engineers, and many of them are voracious readers who, nonetheless, have little connection to any prevailing literary trends. Rather, there appears to be a parallel track of literature that is popular specifically among engineers, which I’ll call “left-brained literature” for lack of a better term. The provisional definition of the term is simply those books that fall into the category of my having empirically observed them being read by a multitude of engineers with a literary bent. My conclusions are tentative, but I think that it’s valuable just to construct this sort of list.

I’m excluding all genre science-fiction from the category, because I don’t find it particularly revelatory. I’m interested in that subset of “mainstream,” “non-genre” fiction (these relative terms having been established by social consensus), and within that set, which novels of some notoriety and good PR happen to attract members of the engineering professions.

(Another scholar who also works amongst engineers produced near-duplication of this list when queried. Some affinities were further verified by use of the “similar items” feature on Amazon. Give me a research grant and I’ll confirm further and conduct a less ad hoc census.)

After each name I’ve given a list of a couple general elements of the author’s work, which I think might be useful in considering their inclusion.

Richard Powers. Uses “science” (and scientists) with a minimum of “science-fiction.” Yet of course this does not explain his comparative left-brained success. By far the most popular of his works amongst engineers: The Gold Bug Variations and Galatea 2.2. Emotionally pathos-laden works. Clear stylistic and thematic affinities with Douglas Hofstadter (see below). A key figure in that he appears to be more popular with engineers than with almost anyone else.

Umberto Eco. Only popular for his fiction, and mostly for his first two novels. Use of generic material (mystery and suspense) towards metafictional and postmodern ends. Rather dispassionate.

Milorad Pavic. Portrays history, myth, and religion as game. Most popular for Dictionary of the Khazars, but this is also his most famous work, a self-described “lexicon novel.” Emotionally sterile, but historically panoramic. Experimental means but clear empiricist ethos.

Georges Perec. Life: A User’s Manual is the ur-text for many spatially architected novels to follow. Mathematical (and other Oulipo-esque approaches) methodologies deployed in fields of the humanities. Hesitant about traditional psychology, abandoning it after the early work A Man Asleep. Controlled emotion, especially notable in W: The Memory of Childhood.

Haruki Murakami. Genre-elements of science-fiction and mystery used in psychological phantasmagorias. Imaginative but construction is often less than rigorous. Linear plots with plenty of momentum. Heartfelt and sincere, if sometimes clumsy. Literal writing sytle.

Colson Whitehead. Quite popular just on the basis of his first novel, The Intuitionist. Not yet categorizable, but shows a tendency to sublimate emotion in allegorical assemblages. Pristine, detached style belies strong messages.

David Mitchell. Heavily influenced by Murakami and has lived in Japan. Also heavy use of phantasmagoria, complemented by very sophisticated narrative construction. Prefers simple, visceral, classical themes approached in flashy, novel way. Heavy use of pathos.

Don DeLillo. Highly acclaimed by literary establishment, but not as popular amongst engineers as some of those above. Heavy allegorization, usually irony-laden. Socio-political commentary, often delivered through the voices of characters who tend to sound the same. Virtuosic stylist, but the prose can drag.

Italo Calvino. Favored mostly by engineers for post-1965 experimental work reminiscent of Borges such as Cosmicomics, Invisible Cities, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, and If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Heavy mythological content; light math/science content. Some “new novel” influence via Robbe-Grillet. Wonderful, breezy stylist.

Douglas Hofstadter. Non-fiction writer, but importance of Godel, Escher, Bach, which partly uses fictional forms, is too great not to list. Brilliant computer scientist and popularizer, but suffers from a glib, punny style and a lack of verbal taste (see his translation of Eugene Onegin) that render his works unreadable to many. His ideas, drawn from logic, music, mathematics, and elsewhere, suffuse the works of many other American authors on this list.

Nicholson Baker. Obsessively detail-oriented. Near-autistic categorizing and cataloguing of quotidian material, especially in his early work. Baroque style, flattened emotions.

Neal Stephenson. Crossed-over from science-fiction into information-laden historical epics of chiefly science history. Most beloved for Snow Crash, but Cryptonomicon is also important. Appropriately-titled Baroque Cycle remains unread even by most engineer fans of his. Competent stylist, light on character and emotion.

William Gibson. Another cross-over. “Cyberpunk” tendencies disguise lack of rigorous science content. Aggressive use of technology, but fundamentally rhapsodic and character-driven. Innovative, influential stylist, but often narratively lax.

Bruce Sterling. A third cross-over who may not yet have crossed over. Parallel career to Gibson, but weak style, emotional shallowness, and lack of character development may have hindered mainstream acceptance. Compensates with greater science and technology content.

Jorge Luis Borges. Literary genius who wrote conceptual, highly-compressed short stories. Not as widely-read as some of the others on this list, but has influenced so many of them that he must be included. Lack of emotion, character, and plot; stories are often driven by a single, revelatory idea.

There were a few other candidates that I excluded from the list either for lack of confirmation data (Cortazar, Pynchon, Auster) or due to the work falling into the realm of “trash,” to use the term descriptively (Danielewski, Coupland). I’d be willing to reconsider. And as much as I racked my brains, I could not come up with a single woman writer that fit.

One obvious conclusion is that engineers tend to like novelists that deal in math and science material, but that does not explain many of the names on this list, notably those that use science in a “soft” form, such as Calvino and Gibson. Certain common traits do seem to recur, such as verbal literalism and a lack of irony, but even these are contradicted by some members of the list above.

I have no definite conclusions to draw at the moment, but I do believe that this is more than just an exercise. Within this overlap, I believe one can observe two different forms of reading, one more particular to engineers and one more general. While they may not be discrete, I think they separate cleanly enough to merit deep investigation.

[How do you all like the new list-making Waggish? It’s only a temporary phase, probably brought on by reading Finnegans Wake, which contains many, many lists itself, particularly the list of names of ALP’s letter (i.e., the book itself) and the list of titles for
HCE. These tendencies will be further explored in a forthcoming post
on listmakers and architects.]

Update: more suggestions and hypotheses from readers in the comments.

The Books on the (Finnegans) Wake

I was asked today about contemporary reaction to Finnegans Wake when it was published, and I had to say that I didn’t think that there was much of one. Borges dismissed it as incomprehensible while asking for a guidebook for it, much as Stuart Gilbert had published one for Ulysses. Others genuflected and tried to forget about it as soon as they could. In the absence of any sort of key with which to decode the novel, most understandably could not be bothered. Edmund Wilson supposedly put the most effort in, though I have not read his review. Anyone have a copy?

It’s a sign of Joyce’s naivete, I suppose, that he didn’t foresee this. He was disappointed by the reception, but I can’t imagine what else he could have expected upon publishing a book that would take decades of effort by hundreds of people to begin to decode. Some have speculated that Joyce intended to make much supporting explanatory material available, as he did with Ulysses when he passed out chapter schemae to Gilbert et al., but that Joyce died before he could do so, two years after publication. I wonder, especially since a lot of Joyce’s explanations tended to be after the fact, as though he were interpreting, non-definitively and not without humor, his own work.

The essays by many famous and less famous names included in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (Work in Progress being the then-title of the Wake) are more interesting as a sort of Rorschach test for the authors involved than for the light they shed on the book. With the possible exception of Beckett, who probably knew a lot more about the book than the others, the efforts by William Carlos Williams, Eugene Jolas, and others attempt to describe Finnegans Wake based on selected fragments, and it’s as though they were looking at a one-inch square of Guernica.

Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson were the first to have a real go at it in A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, which features a great close reading of the opening sections, followed by a dubious but good-hearted attempt to extrapolate the rest of the book. I didn’t get much out of it, but Robinson and Campbell set the style for the two main types of criticism to follow, attempted summarization and word-by-word glossing. To quote David Pears: “Some fly, while others struggle to crawl.”

For a variety of reasons, I stayed within the Joycean tradition of criticism while reading the Wake, avoiding all theory-based and non-specialist approaches. Joyce scholars can be a somewhat hermetic and monomaniacal lot: many of the people below study Joyce exclusively and exhaustively. I can think of no better example than that of Adaline Glasheen, a New England teacher who put together The Census of Finnegans Wake, which attempts to list every personage named or alluded to in the Wake, alphabetically. She remarked:

I hold to my old opinion. Finnegans Wake is a model of a mysterious universe made mysterious by Joyce for the purpose of striking with polished irony at the hot vanity of divine and human wishes…Joyce himself told Arthur Power: what is clear and concise can’t deal with reality, for to be real is to be surrounded by mystery.

The unpretentious Glasheen liberally peppers the text with remarks such as, “I don’t know who this is.” From her husband’s biographical note:

Adaline was born in Evansville, Indiana, attended the public schools there. Adaline and her mother borrowed armloads of books weekly from the public library. They were both able to recall every detail of their reading. Good books, trash they read ’em all. This proved to be a great help in her Joyce work. After a year of two at the University of Indiana, she transferred to the University of Mississippi. Adaline was hired to coach football players in English lest they flunk out and thus do harm to the football team. She continued the reading habits of her childhood. Later she felt that Joyce, too, was a great reader of trash; hence her ability to spot references and allusions in Joyce. She received her B.A. at Ole Miss. She took her M.A. at George Washington University. While I was in the army she taught at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

Upon the birth of our daughter in 1946, Adaline was eager for a task which she could do in the few minutes between the incessant trivia of rearing a child. The ‘Joyce game’ enabled her to survive.

The advantage of the approach of such people that they tend to be rather open to heterodoxy and iconoclasm; the disadvantage can be a certain literalism and lack of generalization. Here then are the books that I found and my reactions to them. The James Joyce Scholars’ Collection is a great resource, as it contains some of the key works of Wake criticism in this tradition.

The Books at the Wake, William Atherton. Ultimately, I think this may be the best place to start. The Wake is inarguably loaded with tons of references to certain writers in particular: not just Vico, but Swift, Lewis Carroll, Blake, etc. Atherton goes author by author, which conveniently gives an overview of the continuities of the book (one of the more difficult things to grasp on encountering it) while not being beholden to one particular interpretation of it.

The Sigla of Finnegans Wake, Roland McHugh. McHugh is one of the most intense Wake scholars, and in The Finnegans Wake Experience he describes moving to Ireland to better understand the book. This slim volume describes, with much reference to Joyce’s notebooks, how the many personages of the book combine into sigla, a dozen or so symbols around which Joyce constructed the book. (For example, HCE in all his various forms is a wicket-shaped “M”, and ALP in hers is a triangle.) Joyce’s sigla changed as he wrote the book, and there’s room for interpretation, but McHugh, like no other analyst, gives the impression of truly grasping the whole damn thing, even as it streams between his fingers. Only my inexpert opinion, but McHugh seemed to be most in tune with Finnegans Wake.

Annotations to Finnegans Wake, Roland McHugh. Absolutely indispensible for writing a paper, but insanely frustrating to a newcomer. For those who haven’t seen it, this is an extensive gloss that maps page-by-page on to the original text with concise, sometimes cryptic notes. (You really have to see it to get the effect.) On first glance the Annotations are just as obscure as the Wake itself, but once I started catching recurrences of certain allusions, it becomes how impressively they match up with particular subjects and characters in the Wake. (For example, apparent Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll references occur absurdly often in any section associated with the daughter Issy.)

Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake, Clive Hart. As the title suggests, Hart’s book contrasts with McHugh’s in tracing linguistic, spatial, temporal, and referential structure through the book rather than focusing on character or narrative. As such, Hart attempts to describe the macro-structure of the Wake with a minimum of interpretation–which invariably turns out to be quite a lot. Hart is in a lot of contentious territory, but his knowledge is solid and his pace careful. I think of Hart’s book as consciously open-ended: even where I find his interpretations uncertain, they are always provocative and spur even more future questions.

More books on the Wake next time…

Harold Brodkey

Jonathan Baskin assesses Harold Brodkey in Bookforum. For however obscure Brodkey is now, I remember his Vintage Contemporaries paperbacks–the first collection and then the big one–as two books that were everpresent in the small fiction sections of suburban bookstores in the days before Borders and Barnes and Noble made extensive selection de rigeur. Then his mammoth The Runaway Soulcame out and Brodkey disappeared overnight, victim of universally bad reviews excoriating his self-indulgence and florid prose. Then a few years later I heard about him again, when he died of AIDS. Now his books are out of print, though readily available for pennies.

Random House and Penguin controlled much of the contemporary fiction that I read as a teenager, and so I read Brodkey with a mixed response. I never connected with his writing, and his story “Puberty” was outright disturbing, a vision of teenage sexuality foreign from anything I knew. The sex writing, which might constitute a good 50 percent of his verbiage, taught me little about either.

Baskin wonders if Brodkey will make a comeback. I don’t think he will. Far from “the American Proust,” Brodkey’s writing is strikingly bad, the sort of thing from which one can learn because its defects are so apparent. Of the passages Baskin quotes, it’s only the final one, reflecting on his imminent death, that carries the clarity and immediacy of good prose. The others avoid it with a secondhand narcissism that illustrates the most common fallacy of aspiring writers: that if the feeling accompanying the writing was sincere and intense, the writing must be instilled with that same significance. Writers learn to look back and see with a detached eye how they failed to communicate. Brodkey, it seems, took longer than most.

Consider (and I must quote from Baskin’s exemplary passages here, since my own Brodkey books are long gone), from “S.L.”:

The elephant-gray mass and rumble of the air, and the itchy, carpetlike closeness of Da’s heat. . . . My face snakily writhes against the fat, resilient bicep of Daddy’s arm. I am now largely on my belly in his arms. “From the backside you look just like everyone else, kiddo–you look like an asshole.” I hang, I arch–like a bowsprit–a branch of the rubbery, muscle-and-spine, oaken pounding-along tree of that man: this is in the state of Illinois, in the now quickening rain; he is running toward the gate of the park: I see the torn rooms of the out-of-doors. Dad says, “NO,” and refolds me in his arms, defining me as Error and A Fool and someone he wants bodily near him, someone whose bodily welfare concerns him: it’s interesting and I start to laugh.

Note how the prose acts as a damper on the emotions that are in play. The word “snakily” throws a wedge into its sentence, conjuring the wrong associations of the scene. Describing “closeness” as “carpetlike” is more confusing than it is enlightening. To “hang” and “arch” is to denote two separate images combined together without explanation. His fathers tree is overloaded as rubbery, muscle-and-spine, andoaken. Dad defines him in an unspecified manner as three divergent things in close succession. The narrator’s response is that he finds it “interesting” and then he laughs. Well, I suppose I often laugh at interesting things too.

“Yes,” comes the defense, “but he still communicatesa feeling.” I disagree and say that Brodkey throws out so many ambiguities that he tricks the reader into imposing conventions onto the scene. The sheer vagueness of the word “interesting” (which I, like you all, was banned from using in high school and which has taken on a wry, ironic cast as I’ve aged) leaves a blank space for readers to fill: they come up with how it was interesting, because Brodkey doesn’t tell them. No doubt Brodkey had a specific image and sensation in his mind, but his sheer failure to convey it is appalling. Brodkey worked with raw, universal material that was familiar to everyone who read him: childhood, love, sex, family. Had he written about something more particular or foreign, his books would have been blatant muddles of confusion. Yet because people can figure out something like what he was trying to say, they mistakenly credit him with having said it in a new way.

I don’t trash Brodkey out of spite or play, but to try to illuminate via negativa what writing must do and how it can fail, as well as how readers can compensate for it. (And more pertinently, why they compensate for it.) Consider in contrast Stephen Dixon, who has been working with similarly quotidian material for over thirty years. Yet where Brodkey is nebulous, Dixon has always been insistently specific, drawing every distinction and particular out of common experience. It’s not that this sort of concreteness is necessary or even desirable for the material, but even for its sheer lack of flash, Dixon’s writing is far more evocative than Brodkey’s. Brodkey treats himself far more seriously than he treats language. My opinion? To cross Yeats and Wittgenstein: In language begins responsibility.

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