Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: faulkner (page 1 of 2)

Absolute Beginners

In the TLS (August 7, 2009), Toby Litt on Raymond Carver’s influence on writing, and more specifically, writing workshops, after the revelation of Carver’s pre-Lished early drafts of the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love:

Carver is not simply another writer we read and enjoy and put aside. Even while alive he had been turned into a literary saint. For students on creative writing courses, his is a constant presence, both in the classes themselves (where “Write what you know” and “Show don’t tell” draw huge power from his example), and in their heads as they sit at the desk (where adjectives are cut, if ever written down, simply because they are adjectives and adjectives are bad).

What it finally comes down to, though, is the idea that Raymond Carver was a writer of true, pure sentences. When creative writing students looked at their own work, they coudl ask, “How would Carver have said this?”. With the publication of Beginners, the sanctity of Carver has been undermined. The stories were anything but inevitable. Many of the qualities of style (not subject) that one would identify as Carveresque turn out to have derived from Gordon Lish’s blue pencil…Lish did not simply cut, he also altered and added–in my opinion, almost always to the benefit of the story at hand.

I would argue that Carver not only allowed the resulting stories to come out under his name, but that he propagated a view that their spareness was entirely the result of his own aesthetic of the short story. And it is this idea, that a writer should relentlessly pare away at their prose to make it pure and true, that has come to dominate how creative writing is taught. Students aren’t given David Foster Wallace or W.G. Sebald as models; that would be too dangerous. They are given early Carver. Keep it simple, stupid. No tricks. Imitate Ray. It turns out, though, that what these students were all along aspiring to imitate wasn’t Raymond Carver’s stories or even Raymond Carver himself but the quality of the Carveresque–and that quality was the creation of two men, not one.

Having read a fair bit of Lish’s fiction (apparently a rare phenomenon), there’s not a lot to suggest that Lish overtook Carver in the realm of the subject, and the watered-down Lishian style that resulted in those early Lishified Carver stories is a good deal more enjoyable than Lish at his purest.

As for the cult of Ray, I’d add to the list of cliches that old advice (supposedly from William Faulkner, although that is one hell of an irony): “Kill your darlings.” I get the sense that the cult has somewhat faded in the last decade as trendier and hipper writers have upstaged Carver, but maybe the old guard stands strong.

Faulkner’s Light in August and Coetzee’s Disgrace

Light in August is Faulkner’s longest book and certainly the most plainspoken of the early works, even more so than As I Lay Dying. I don’t think of Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness techniques as being integral to his work in the way that experimental prose stylings are to Joyce or even Woolf, for they are always in the service of a a story–perhaps scrambled–that takes its expression in various ways. I see and feel less purely linguistic focus, and contrariwise, overwhelmingly strong thematic content that subordinates style and plot to its boundaries. That is to say, Faulkner is concertedly experimental in the same way that Melville is.

So because Light in August is about mostly sane and often simple people, it is very rare for any character save Joe Christmas to slip into Quentin Compson-ish mental chaos. Joe is rather crazy, and so his demons mix their words up:

thinking I dont even know that what they are saying to her is something that men do not say to a passing child believing I do not know yet that in the instant of sleep the eyelid closing prisons within the eye’s self her face demure, pensive; tragic, sad, and young; waiting, colored with all the vague and formless magic of young desire. That already there is something for love to feed upon: that sleeping I know now why I struck refraining that negro girl three years ago and that she must know it too and be proud, with waiting and pride

And for all this talk of Joe as Christ, it’s not particularly convincing. He continually runs away from himself and others. When he meets Joanna, who was brought up by abolitionists to feel damned by being white, he runs from her attempts to draw him into her own play of guilt and fatalism, but he fails and in turn rapes, lives with, and finally kills her.

Reading this again, I made a connection that I had never made before to Coetzee’s Disgrace. I often disagree with James Wood, but I think he was right in criticizing the novel for its historically overdetermined allegory:

Lucy’s “disgrace,” of course, is not one that she earned or deserved; but in pairing the two forms of penitence, the novel comes unpleasantly close to suggesting a formal parallel of disgrace, in which both characters enact “necessary” falls.

This is a significant weakness, and it returns us to Coetzee’s limitations, which are the limitations of allegory. Disgrace is so firmly plotted and shaped, so clearly blocked out, that it seems to request a kind of clarity of reading which is ultimately simplifying and harmful to the novel, in which “issues” are shared out between the generations, and split into willing binarisms: young and old, liberal and conservative, man and woman, straight and gay. Around this, the novel’s architecture attempts to fuse these binarisms, by arguing for a kind of parallelism. It as if the form of the book tells us that despite the oppositions of Lucy and her father, both characters share more than they divide, for here are two people undergoing their different-but-similar forms of disgrace.

And Lucy seems awfully close to Faulkner’s Joanna; she too takes the brunt of punishment directed at her historically and not personally, and Lucy too goes further in raising the child from her own rape.

Where I think Faulkner is stronger and does not fall into Coetzee’s hole is that he negates this inevitability, not with Lena’s child at the end, but with Joe himself, who is not black nor white, but takes on various identities over the course of the book at others’ insistence, only to be crushed by them over and over. The conclusive indication of this blank slateness is towards the end, before Joe is caught and lynched:

It is just dawn, daylight: that gray and lonely suspension filled with the peaceful and tentative waking of birds. The air, inbreathed, is like spring water. He breathes deep and slow, feeling with each breath himself diffuse in the neutral grayness, becoming one with loneliness and quiet that has never known fury or despair. ‘That was all I wanted,’ he thinks, in a quiet and slow amazement. ‘That was all, for thirty years. That didn’t seem to be a whole lot to ask in thirty years.’

Note: (1) the emphasis on “neutral grayness” and its non-racial implications; (2) organized thoughts presented as words rather than as italicized stream of consciousness; (3) the continuous emphasis of calm and peace, of nature in the absence of society; (4) the absence of any inner conflicting force. Joe’s demons are externally given by dint of situation, and in the brief moment that he feels left alone by all people and society, he gains peace. This is not to say that it is Joanna herself that assigns him his identity, but that Joanna is sewn in a determinate way into the social fabric in the way that Joe is not. People argue over whether Joe has “Negro blood” in him or not, but the whole point is that it doesn’t matter. Joe is put into situations where he purportedly does and doesn’t have it and it’s always for the worse. And the investigation of Joe’s situation and its indeterminacy (if I were being trendy, I would call it an aporia) is where Faulkner transcends Coetzee’s novel.

[I would say the same for Ralph Ellison, who extends this uncertainty into far greater territory in Invisible Man.]

Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun

I’ve been meaning to write on this series/book for years, but because I’m less than enthusiastic about it, I haven’t quite had the impetus. Thinking back on it now, there are striking bits and pieces that have stayed with me, but the work as a whole has not. But because Gene Wolfe is praised to the skies by many “intellectual” sci-fi fans while being ignored by everyone else, I think he represents a position that is worth exploring. I.e., why is Wolfe still occupying a marginal place in literature in spite of praise from the likes of John Clute and Michael Swanwick, while Philip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson, and William Gibson have made it into the mainstream canon?

I think there are discernible reasons for this. Wolfe may not be any worse than Stephenson or Gibson, but his particular weaknesses are much more problematic for non-sf readers than theirs. This is mostly for the sake of people who have already read the book, since I’ll be referring to lots of things not apparent until the very end of the book, if then. For those who haven’t read it, I suggest reading “The Death of Doctor Island,” a brilliant story that bests anything else I’ve read by Wolfe. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is also rather good (read all three novellas, not just the first) and deserves inclusion with other highlights of post-colonial literature.

On to the massive, ambitious, creative, and flawed The Book of the New Sun: first, there’s the style. Wolfe tends to employ a somewhat high-falutin’ style using words that appear to be neologisms but are anything but, drawn directly or indirectly from archaic words and usages, often Latin-derived. Some people I know find the resulting style insufferably pompous and awkward; I don’t, but nor do I find it to be one of Wolfe’s particular strengths. It does, however, serve its purpose, which is to evoke strangeness while preserving a depth of meaning, and I give Wolfe credit for this. Creating effective neologisms is very, very hard. (cf. “whuffie.”) What it doesn’t do is make the writing beautiful, which is one big minus in being accepted by the mainstream. Dick’s style is clunky but doesn’t call attention to itself; Wolfe’s is clunky, and it can’t be ignored.

The next issue is the plot. Wolfe is very fond of elision and narrative unreliability. Central plot points are skipped over and only referred to in retrospect. Others are presented in a highly misdirecting manner. And others are simply never cleared up. Because Wolfe’s ideas manifest themselves primarily through plot machinations, this is more of a problem than it would be in, for instance, a Faulkner novel. In so far as the entire series revolves around an obliquely laid out science-fiction scenario having to do with installing a white hole into the sun, it’s necessary to derive the plot sequence properly in order to make sense of the layers of (mostly Christian) symbolism and allegory that Wolfe has quite definitely laid into the series. And often just to figure out what has actually happened. A flurry of significant answers are delivered at the very end of the series, but these following questions, as far as I could tell, do not have apparent answers:

  1. Why does the Claw only work sometimes?
  2. Why does Hethor want to kill Severian?
  3. Is Little Severian just coincidentally a little boy with the same name, or is he the next Severian, or Severian himself?
  4. Does Typhon have any significance outside of the section in which he appears?
  5. Was Severian raised in the prisoner/starship cave?
  6. Who is Severian’s sister?
  7. Isn’t it, like, really dangerous to have the autarch pass from one body to the next, relying on the alzabo-esque transition to keep the line going, when the autarch tends to behave in wildly unsafe ways?
  8. What other characters are “projections” of the machines of the hierodules? Dorcas?
  9. Is Severian the conciliator?

People argue that Wolfe can be enjoyed without answering these puzzles, but unlike, say, Thomas Pynchon, Wolfe puts so much effort into the hints and partial answers that it very much appears as though things will come together. And they partly do. Moreover, their not coming together would not serve any evident thematic purpose. When Gravity’s Rainbow falls apart, it ties into themes and motifs that have been present from the very first page. Wolfe’s story of rebirth and redemption is anything but entropic and chaotic.

But where the book most seriously fails in its ambitions is on a more fundamental level, which is that in the stability of the text itself. We know that Severian is a liar quite early on. We also know that what he is writing is destined for public consumption by people in his world, and that Wolfe claims to be acting as a translator of Severian’s manuscript which has traveled long and far, without knowing anything about that audience. These two facts cause the book to be underdetermined with regard to Severian’s motives and to the purpose of the text itself. Because we do not know what intent may be behind Severian’s lies, we can’t derive from the whole what the meaning of any particular piece is, because we do not have the whole context. If Severian were known to be telling the truth, we could inductively grasp the meaning of his history in the world. But because both are uncertain, the book loses sense structurally. This is not a matter of obscurity; rather, it is an intentional choice that indicates a serious failure on the part of Wolfe to push his book past the realm of entertainment. Without our being able to grasp the deeper sense of Severian’s words other than as a maybe-true story, he reduces the book to decontextualized apocrypha, a gnostic gospel without an accompanying authoritative text.

For all their faults, the other writers mentioned above make their metaphysics and their internal structures quite clear. Even the underrated Christopher Priest, who has made an art of unreliable narrators, is sure to place them within a determinate (or determinately indeterminate) context. But Wolfe uses these devices without appearing to have a larger sense of what they might mean; like the lesser Oulipo novels, they’re just a game. And it is this myopia that I think is his greatest debt to the flaws of science-fiction, and the reason why his crossover remains unlikely.

A la Fin Du Temps Perdu

I’ll try not to give away too much here, but the multiyear Proust reading has come to an end, even if the blog hasn’t. Since this isn’t an in-depth analysis but only my own reaction on finishing what is the longest book I’ve ever read (I can’t think of anything else that even comes close), I’m putting it on the main page. For you all who haven’t finished it, I don’t think there is much in the way of spoilers below, but it’s about finishing the book, so caveat emptor.

This is a very personal book. Towards the end, Proust describes a work of literary art as being an edifice built around the writer, to be seen and interpreted by visitors from the outside. There are works of fiction that don’t take this stance, works that attempt to generalize over all of life and speak in universals. In this view, the author is merely a conduit for a noumenal world. Shakespeare, of course, falls into this category, as do Dostoevsky, Homer, Melville, Faulkner. But Proust is very explicit that the vision he is projecting is a mirror of his own mind and little else, not that he needs to be explicit about it. In many ways Proust is as hermetic as Kafka or Kleist in his unshakeable devotion to his own perspective. It’s apparent that the problems he faces–and the ultimate answers he arrives at–are ones quite specific to himself and his own situation; i.e., that of a brilliant writer in active society.

That Proust’s excavation is so complete and so brilliant makes the work paradoxical. As I had been told by friends, Proust ends on a high, bringing together many threads from earlier in the work, and the feeling on finishing is one of satisfaction and completeness. It is the opposite of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which embraces the world and everything in it only to shatter and fall apart, because Musil’s world expanded and mutated faster than his book. But the paradox makes leaving Proust an ambivalent experience. On finishing his work, I did not feel as though I was carrying the entirety of the book with me in my head (though I have assimilated parts of it quite thoroughly). Rather, it was like leaving a cathedral and having the doors shut behind you.

I held off reading the end for about a week, precisely because I knew that finishing it would mean leaving Proust’s world. Proust never had to deal with that problem; even having written the end, the refinement of the gigantic middle could have easily been stretched to accomodate far more days than he had. The polar emotions that greeted me at the end were comfortable satisfaction at being at the brilliant summit of the end of the book, followed by the blinding readjustment that you have on walking out of a dark theater into the sunlight. And then the question, “Well, what do I read next?” (A: I think it has to be Beckett.)

Is it, in the words of an old professor, the greatest thing ever written? I can’t say that it is, because part of me feels that admitting that would be to narrow the scope of my world to that of Proust’s. But is it the greatest success ever written, a book that sets out very specific terms and fulfills them beyond any expectation, comparable to Joyce or Kant? Possibly.

Proust FAQ

Why Proust?
I wanted to keep a journal of reading some sizeable book that I hadn’t yet read, and ROTP is at the top of the list of books I want to have read. Whether I actually want to read it is debatable, but so far, so good.

Why haven’t you read Proust already?
It bored me. I’ve had it sitting on the shelf for a very long time, but never read more than a few dozen pages somewhere in the early volumes without moving on to something a little punchier.
The authors of fiction that most interest me?-people like Musil, Borges, Beckett, Kafka, Mann, Gogol, Broch, Kleist, Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf, and Lem?-tend towards concentrated expressions of ideas and concepts. Most don’t eschew lengthy physical description, poetic and imagistic lyricism, or comedies/tragedies of manners, but they use them as an end to a unified conception, not as distracting scenery for its own sake.
I saw Proust as focusing too narrowly on the gossip around a bunch of narcissistic French aristocrats who had no sense of perspective. Perhaps I was prejudiced in thinking there was less to be made out of this than out of a bunch of infirm old men carving castles in the air in some remote German sanitorium. I’m older and wiser now, but we’ll see.

What’s the point of the entries?
I’m not trying to organize them particularly well. Having forgotten most of what I ever knew about ROTP, I want to copy down the passages that most grab me and provide some context for why they do.
It’s very much a “first reading” endeavor: there’s plenty of stuff I’ll miss or pass over as unimportant, and I see that as unavoidable given that this is meant to be completed in months, not years.
There’s plenty I’m leaving out as well. I’ll easily ignore thirty pages of a witty party in favor of an abstruse philosophical aside. This is as much a document of what I was looking for in the book as what I got from it. (Which, coincidentally, Proust thinks is the most important thing anyway. How apropos!)

What’s your background?
Too educated to be an autodidact, too much of a dilettante to be a scholar. I don’t do this for a living, and I wouldn’t want to.

What conventions are you using?
“Marcel” signifies the character, “Proust” the author.
Page numbers are from the three-volume gray Vintage Moncrieff/Kilmartin edition, pre-Enright revision.

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