Sunday, March 30, 2008

Bill Clinton

In general, my policy is to stick to book-related (and occassionally film-related) posts only. But I am too excited not to include these photos.




Dance to the Music of Time - The Movie Part 1

I'm gearing up for A Dance to the Music of Time, Second Movement, so I rented the first part of the movie version. This was a very good idea. One of the problems that I'm having with the novel is its length, which makes it difficult for me to link things that are said in one volume or chapter with a scene in the next volume or chapter. Those details aren't being linked. The movie made me realize this very clearly. For example: Widmerpool tells Jenkins that he was "very indiscreet" with Gypsy Jones and as a result, he had to pay for her to have an abortion. However, prior to this, Gypsy meets Widmerpool and Jenkins when she and Deacon attend a party with them. At the party, Deacon approaches Nick to ask if he knows a doctor for Gypsy... and he doesn't, "mean the usual general practitioner with the restricted views of his profession." Clearly, Gypsy was in the family way before she met Widmerpool, so her comment later to Nick that "somebody had to pay" makes a lot more sense. When I read about Widmerpool paying for her abortion, I assumed that he had gotten her pregnant, but obviously that wasn't the case: he was just the schmuck that paid.

Also, the quips about Mona: When we find out that she has married Templer (when Nick runs into him while waiting for Members), Mona is at the movies watching a movie that Templer thinks is about lesbians. When Nick tells him that it's not about lesbians, he says that Mona will be disappointed. When Mona was introduced as someone that Nick had already met, I didn't exactly remember. However, the movie made that scene clear. Mona is a friend of Gypsy and she is described by Members: "She really hates men." Is Mona a lesbian? Will this be developed further in subsequent novels?

The movie makes clear how much Widmerpool is the brunt of everyone's jokes...as well as how he always shows up at the right moment. Sometimes it seems as if he is stalking Nick. There he is on the bus after the car accident with Duport; at the ball where he is described as "ploughing his way round the room, as if rowing a dinghy in rough water" (portrayed hilariously in the film); to pick up Stringham when he is drunk after the reunion.

Seeing the movie was like watching a movie about the lives of your friends, showing stories that you have heard them tell of, but that you weren't present for. The scene of Widmerpool dancing made me laugh out loud...it was so characteristically Widmerpool.

My copy of the second movement should arrive early next week. I will try to be more dedicated to it than I was with the first movement. I also purchased An Invitation to the Dance, which will hopefully be a useful resource in navigating this massive novel.



Jenkins


Templer


Stringham


Quiggin


WIDMERPOOL!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Wings of the Dove

I finally finished the evil Wings of the Dove this morning. In fact, I got up early just to read the last ten pages before work, so I wouldn’t have to drag the book around another day. It went immediately onto the Abandoned Books pile…along with three other Henry James books that I had acquired before realizing that I dislike him more than any other author.

The Wings of the Dove is the story of Kate Croy and Merton Densher. Kate and Merton want to get married, but Merton is penniless, and Kate’s family want to see her marry someone with a little money. Along comes American Milly Theale, who met Merton when he visited New York on a business trip. Milly is rich…and she is dying. Kate also discovers that Milly has a thing for Merton. So, Kate hatches an idea: Merton is to pretend that he’s interested in Milly so that she will hopefully leave him at least part of her fortune when she croaks. Then, Merton will be rich and he can marry Kate.

This plan both does and does not work out the way that Kate anticipated. Milly finds out that Kate and Merton are engaged, and Merton refuses to deny it outright because he feels that to do so would be to betray Kate. This causes Milly to give up on life and accept death. Around the time of her death, Merton receives a letter from Milly. He wants Kate to open it. They are sure that it will state that Milly has left Merton some an inheritance despite their deception. Kate flings the letter into the fire. A few months later, Merton receives an envelope full of money from America, which he forwards to Kate. It's a test of sorts, and the fact that she opened it disappoints Merton. He wants to be free of the deception, as he was never really comfortable with it and only participated to please Kate. He gives Kate an ultimatum: marry him without the money, or take the money and be free of him. In other words: Merton wants Kate to marry him because of who he is, not because he has money - to go back to the way it was before Milly. But Kate asserts that it will never be that way again.

I will admit that this novel wasn't as bad as The Ambassadors. But as I said in a previous post, that's not really saying much. For the most part, I was able to discern the plot of Wings of the Dove, which is more than I can say for The Ambassadors. I have come to the conclusion that reading Henry James is like watching a movie through a very thick fog. I cannot really articulate it any better than that. It's like watching a movie through some mist which clouds everything, so that you can see movement, and you can hear dialog, but somehow it just isn't clear.

This book draws parallels with other pieces of literature, the most striking being Vanity Fair and Sister Carrie. The ending of WotD was very Sister Carrie-esque: the characters spend an entire novel trying to get to a certain goal only to find that reaching the goal wasn't what they thought it would be...the grass isn't always greener. Kate Croy reminded me very much of Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair. But while Becky Sharp is a character that is clear and pointed, Kate Croy is nebulous. I had written in response to Sister Carrie that one could tell the difference between a good novel with despicable characters and a mediocre one based on one's response to the character, and WotD definately fits into the mediocre category.

Henry James apparently went through three phases of writing, which are lovingly (I'm sure) called James the First, James the Second, and the Old Pretender. James the First culminated with The Portrait of a Lady (1881), meaning that The Americans, The Europeans, Daisy Miller and Washington Square are part of his apprentice years characterized as simple and direct (obviously the antithesis of his later period). James the Second runs until approximately 1897 during which he focused on short stories and plays. The Turn of the Screw fits into this period, as does What Maisie Knew and The Bostonians. The rest of literary career is as the Old Pretender, which is of course the period that includes the three novels on the Modern Library list: The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl. This period is characterized by "frequent double negatives and complex descriptive imagery. Single paragraphs...run for page after page, in which an initial noun [is] succeeded by pronouns surrounded by clouds of adjectives and prepositional clauses, far from their original referents, and verbs [are] deferred and then preceded by a series of adverbs. The overall effect could be a vivid evocation of a scene as perceived by a sensitive observer." Note that the overall effect "could be" a vivid evocation... it could be, I suppose - but it isn't. Or maybe I'm just not a sensitive observer. If one must be a sensitive observer to enjoy, or at least understand, James's Old Pretender phase, I proudly proclaim that I am not a sensistive observer.


This phasing of James's writing career could explain why I, at one point in time, enjoyed The Turn of the Screw. Yes, I admitted it - I did at one point in time enjoy that particular story. Perhaps all is not lost for Daisy Miller, Washington Square, or The Portrait of a Lady. Or maybe I should give up.

The Telegraph quotes H.G. Wells on Henry James: "His vast paragraphs sweat and struggle; they could not sweat and elbow and struggle more if God himself was the processional meaning to which they sought to come. And all for tales of nothingness It is leviathan retrieving pebbles. It is a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den. Most things, it insists, are beyond it, but it can, at any rate, modestly, and with an artistic singleness of mind, pick up that pea." The article also says that Thomas Hardy once referred to James as Polonius of English Prose. "...surely the Polonius jibe was a very palpable hit? "More matter and less art" is exactly what any honest reader must sometimes wish to scream at the Old Pretender." EXACTLY!

The Telegraph also describes The Golden Bowl as a "dense" novel. Great...something to look forward to! Two down, one to go.

One last note: I had problems finding websites about WotD (the novel at least...there is a plethora of them about the movie, which seems to have taken some liberties with the novel). The only one I could find is here.

In summary, WotD wasn’t as painful as The Ambassadors, and that’s about its only redeeming quality. I got a call yesterday from the library that my interlibrary loan is in – Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man. It must be the universe’s reward for finishing WotD.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

This novel reads like a pretentious French novel written by a pretentious French teenager, which is exactly what it is. There's this 17 year old, Cecile who lives with her 40-something playboy father, Raymond (her mother is dead). Raymond has never accepted that he is no longer in his 20s. He has brief affairs with 20-something "stupid, frivolous women" (pg. 111), and he and Cecile sit around, smoke cigargettes, and talk about life, death, love, etc. Essentially, they live the pretentious French lifestyle. Needless to say, it's clear that Raymond isn't exactly the best influence for a 17 year old, and it's suggested that she has been involved with Raymond's friends - though the level of seriousness of these relationships isn't clear.

Father and daughter decide to take a holiday in the Riviera along with Raymond's girlfrield, Elsa. Later, Raymond invites Anne to visit. Anne is a friend of his late wife's who looked after Cecile while she was away at school. Anne is not the typical type this family hangs around with - she is intelligent, older, straight laced, etc. She also has feelings for Raymond. She shows up, and they all go to a casino. Raymond and Anne disappear for a long time, and Elsa and Cecile can't find them. Cecile eventually finds them in the car in the parking lot...wonder what they were doing... Nope, the text says that they were obviously having an intense conversation. They ask Cecile to tell Elsa that Anne was sick and Raymond took her home. Elsa knows what's up and leaves. They next morning Raymond and Anne inform Cecile that they're getting married. Cecile sees this as an end to their carefree lifestyle and hatches a plan in which Elsa and Cyril (Cecile's summer boyfriend who Anne has forbidden her to see) will pretend to be in love so Raymond will get jealous and leave Anne in order to win Elsa back. Tragedy ensues...but only for a short time. Then Cecile and Raymond return to their typical routine: "...Life began to take its old course...now, when my father and I are along together, we joke and discuss our latest conquests...but we are happy." (pg 127)

Does Cecile feel bad about what she is doing? She hatches the plan out of jealousy – she doesn’t want to lose her lifestyle and her father to a mundane domestic life. It’s a game that she hopes will end before anyone really gets hurt. Her initial thoughts are that she wants Anne out of her and her father’s life. Later, she states that she hopes that they will all return to Paris before her father decides to pursue Elsa; however, she continues to instruct Cyril and Elsa on how to play their roles. That’s fine – most people might be conflicted out it…but if she really feels so bad about what she’s doing, why doesn’t she stop telling Elsa and Cyril what bar they are going to be and when? She doesn’t want to do what she is doing, but she does it anyway. Why?

What does Cecile want to see as the final outcome of her plan? At times, it appears that she wants Anne gone (“A clean break with Anne would in the long run be less painful [for Raymond] than living a well-regulated life as her husband.” Pg. 112). Other instances suggest that Anne just needs to learn a lesson (“I had no wish to humiliate her, but only to force her to accept our way of life.” Pg. 113). And, of course, at other times Cecile expresses enthusiasm and excitement about their new life with Anne. WTF? Conflicted is one thing…but contradictory is another, and there is never an actual of admission of conflict. Was Sagan aware of this contradiction? When Cecile’s plan succeeds, what is her reaction? Does she say to herself, “well this is sad but it’s what I wanted. It is the outcome of my actions”? Of course not. Cecile’s reaction is “we had to get Anne back.” So, like the morons they are, she and her father draft elaborate apology letters and are convinced that Anne will have to return because what they are writing is so convincing. I’m sure. Too bad Anne is already dead.

In a similar vein, did Cecile feel that Anne's reaction was justified? She first admits that Anne would be perfectly right to leave them based on Raymond’s dandy ways (“…not because Anne was jealous…but because she had made up her mind to live with him on her own terms. She was determined to put an end to the era of frivolity and debauchery and to stop his schoolboy behavior…in the future he must behave well and not be a slave to his caprices. One could not blame Anne; hers was a perfectly normal and sane point of view.” Pg 113). When Anne actually does leaves, however, Cecile states, “I felt sorry for [Raymond] and for myself too.” Why does she feel sorry? Because she chased away the only decent, intelligent woman your father has ever had as a mistress? Because you wish that you hadn’t dreamed all this up and caused everyone such misery? Nope: “After all, why should Anne act like this, leave us in the lurch, make us suffer so for one little moment of folly? Hadn’t she a duty to us?” Like a typical teenager, she is unable to accept responsibility for the consequences of her actions.

I read in a review of Bonjour Tristesse that Cecile is "such a believable character." That's true - she is a believable, spoiled, maipulative French teenage, and if you want to read about such characters - believable or not - than this book is definately for you. Some of this believability probably comes from the fact that Sagan was a spoiled French teenager when she wrote the novel. I, however, am infinitely annoyed by teenagers, especially ones like Cecile, so I was probably destined not to like this book. The prose comes across as juvenile and reminds me of what I tried to emulate when I was into writing stories in middle school.

Having recently read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Road, I cannot help but compare righting styles and I simply don't believe that Bonjour Tristesse is anywhere near their stylistic league, let alone in it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Invasion of the Body Snatchers


Farmers. Grimaldi, Pixley... Gessner!
Seeds drifting through space for years...took root in a farmer's field. From the seeds came pods...which had the power to reproduce themselves...in the exact likenessof any form of life. So that's how it began...out of the sky.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Out of Their Minds - Clifford Simak

This short science fiction novel is very strange. The basic plot is that there is a parallel universe (though that isn't the term used in the book) which is comprised of all the fantasy characters that man has created over the centuries. This other world started out with characters who could build a culture - the devil, fairies, witches, enchanted castles, etc. However, now we are creating spineless characters - Mickey Mouse, Charlie Brown, etc...and the Devil isn't very happy about it. So, he starts to mess with our world in an attempt to make a deal to keep these silly creatures out of it.

It wasn't great writing, it wasn't great fantasy, but the concept of an alterative world in which Don Quixote could spar with Daffy Duck as the Scarlet Pumpernickel is a fun one (though that doesn't actually happen in the novel). Kind of like Who Framed Roger Rabbit ...but that was much better than Out of their Minds.

My only question is: why hasn't Terry Gilliam made a movie out of this? Just to see the odd bird-creature called The Referee come to life would be worth the entire project.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark

I was surprised by this novel. I’ll be honest…I was surprised that I liked it. Picking it up, I was thinking of Goodbye Mr. Chips, another short novel about a beloved teacher, and which I had found utterly boring. But TPoMJB wasn’t like that at all.

Let’s begin with the prose: it was elliptical and repetitive - not bad repetitive, but poetic repetitive. The story is not told linearly, but through a jumping forward and backward in time, similar to Catch-22. In the beginning, the reader is presented with the fact that Miss Brodie is going to be betrayed, so you think, “ok, this novel is going to be about figuring out who betrayed Miss Brodie.” But it’s not…that who is revealed in the third chapter. So, it then becomes, why did she betray Miss Brodie? Above all, the prose is restrained. Not as restrained and bare-bones as Cormac McCarthy, but there is a sense of holding things back, and revealing them one by one.

On the surface the plot is fairly simple: six girls comprise the “Brodie Set:” a group of students who had grown very close to their charismatic teacher, Miss Brodie, at a girls’ school in 1930s Scotland. And of course, because of her unconventional style, the higher ups at the school want to find an excuse to get rid of her. Ultimately, one of Miss Brodie’s set “betrays” her (as in, gives the school an excuse to get rid of her), she is forced to retire, and she spends the rest of her days trying to figure out which one of the girls turned her in, never guessing that it was the one she groomed as her confidante, Sandy. This plot line could have made the novel a sermon on the benefits of a progressive education, or a diatribe against the educational establishment which doesn’t allow for alternative teaching methods, but that isn’t the way that the book goes. Miss Brodie isn’t simply an unconventional educator, however: she is as narcissistic as literary characters come, and seeks to establish control over the lives of her students to a dangerous – and deadly, in one case – degree.

I first got this sense when she started to tell her students (who, by the way, begin the book around age 11) of all the advances being made in Italy because of Mussolini. She eventually begins to glow about Hitler as well, whom she describes as “a prophet-figure like Thomas Carlyle, and more reliable than Mussolini.” Even after the war, when talking to one of her former students, she only admits that Hitler “was a little naughty.” That might be the understatement of the 20th century.

And then we have the situation of her love triangle: Miss Brodie is in love with Teddy Lloyd, the art teacher; he reciprocates her feelings, but is married with six children. The music teacher, Mr. Lowther (a bachelor) is also in love with her, but she doesn’t feel the same. However, as she feels that it is more appropriate to have an affair with an unmarried man, she starts sleeping with Mr. Lowther. Eventually, this takes on a very strange nature, as she tries to fatten him up and encourages her Set (who come to visit her at Mr. Lowther's house) to talk about Mr. Lloyd - in front of Mr. Lowther. Miss Brodie goes on about how Teddy Lloyd was the love of her life, but she "renounced his love in order to dedicate [her] prime to the young girls in [her] care." I wonder if she didn't pursue an affair with Mr. Lloyd just so that she could say that... it is almost more dramatic that she doesn't carry on with him, than if she did, because she can make a point out of her sacrifice of that love to her girls. As the girls grow close to Mr. Lloyd, they model for some of his paintings... but oddly enough, all of their faces always end up looking like Miss Brodie. In another twist, Miss Brodie becomes obsessed with trying to get Rose (one of the Set) to begin an affair with Mr. Lloyd. Why she wants one of her students to sleep with "the love of her life," I don't understand, but whatever, that's Miss Brodie for you (I know it's probably so that she can live vicariously through her, but it still is weird). Eventually, however, it is Sandy that has the affair with him, and Miss Brodie never seems quite confortable with that, though itdoesn't stop her from wanting to hear all about it. Sandy grows bored with Mr. Lloyd but fascinated by his secret devotion to her former teacher. Eventually, it is suggested, that part of the reason why she betrays Miss Brodie is because no matter how much she tried to understand Miss Brodie's appeal, she "failed to obliterate her image from the canvases of one-armed Teddy Lloyd."

Rereading what I've written here about the plot, I am struck by how Muriel Spark was able to cram so much into such a small book! And there was so much more to it than just what I've written...

Miss Brodie eventually is shown to be someone who thought that she had control, but ultimately didn’t (except over Joyce Emily, who she convinces to run away and fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, where she is quickly killed). All of the girls from the set move on quickly, forming separate lives and identities as they cast off any influence Miss Brodie ever had over them (except Sandy). Mr. Lowther gets engaged to the science teacher behind Miss Brodie’s back, and while they're still sleeping with each other. Even her inability to figure out which girl betrayed her, and her obsession with figuring it out, is a testament to her self-absorbed, narcissistic personality. And just as, even after Hitler’s atrocities are well know, she is unable to admit that she might have been wrong about him, she never seemed to consider Sandy as the possible Judas, as to do so would cause her to question her own judgment in choosing Sandy as the confidante. The oddest suggestion in the book, however, is Sandy's assertion at the end that Miss Brodie is a repressed lesbian. I don't see that at all. Though she does seem oddly attracted in some way (not in the conventional sense) to her students, I think that rather than a lesbian, she portrays the signs of an abusive, controlling personality ("Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life"), who perhaps sees her impressionable students as easy prey. She wants followers who will believe in her own vision of herself - like Hitler. And there is Sandy, so many years later in her nunnery, still obsessed with Miss Brodie.

There are many different themes that could be pursued: Miss Brodie as the personficiation of the Cavlinist God, Miss Brodie's behavior and the parallels with fascism, etc. But I'm not going to pursue them here.

This was a really good book, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I hate Henry James and I'm not afraid to admit it

Wings of the Dove. I'll admit it's not as bad as The Ambassadors, but then that book was the worst book that I've ever read, so that's not really paying WotD a complement. I have a slightly better idea of what is going on than I did in The Ambassadors, in which I was so lost that I eventually just surrendered to the fact that I didn't get it, and would never get it, so I should just finish the stupid thing and be done with it. I feel the same way with WotD, though less so.

Here's what annoys me about Henry James: There are many times while reading any particular book when I suddenly realize that I don't really know what's going on. Oftentimes, that is my own fault for not paying attention. So, I go back and reread the last paragraph, or last page, or even last few pages, and I'm back up to speed on what is happening. With Henry James, however, it doesn't matter how much I read, or reread, or how intensely I pay attention...I still don't understand what's going on. His syntax is strange and he never seems to come to the point. His writing is circumlocutory: instead of writing one or two sentences, he writes 20, which really could be 60, circling around what he's trying to say. Most often, the only reason why I have any clue what is going on is because I read a summary of the book, so I know what is supposed to be going on, and I can kind of follow along. Note the "kind of," because even when I know the plot, I still am often lost.

When I was reading The Ambassadors, I thought that maybe I was just stupid...which is how I feel when I attempt to read Joyce, and occasionally Faulkner. That is until I found Doug Shaw's review of the book. I will be forever grateful to Doug Shaw for writing that review, as it completely saved my self-esteem...my feeling of worth as a reader. When reading Faulkner, or Joyce, or many of the other Writers For Very Intelligent Readers, I recognized it as such. But at least with them, if I worked at it hard enough, I could get it, and I would come out feeling so much smarter... there is a sense of accomplishment that comes with reading, finishing, and sort of understanding Joyce, or The Sound and Fury. But instinctively, I didn't feel that way with The Ambassadors. I kept thinking to myself, how did I become so stupid that I don't understand this? But then I found Doug Shaw, and I realized that I'm not stupid. The book is stupid. Henry James is stupid. It isn't just me.

While seeking out other people who hate Henry James, I found a lesson plan for high school teachers who are covering James. One of the suggestions was: 'Give students an in-class writing assignment: “What If You Were Henry James?”' What if I was Henry James? I would have saved the world the misery of having to read my books by never writing them.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

CRIMES AGAINST COMMAS

"She had come on from Boston for that purpose; had seen little of the girl--or rather had seen her but briefly, for Mrs. Stringham, when she saw anything at all, saw much, saw everything--before accepting her proposal; and had accordingly placed herself, by her act, in a boat that she more and more estimated as, humanly speaking, of the biggest, though likewise, no doubt, in many ways, by reason of its size, of the safest." (Wings of the Dove)

I take back what I said about Anthony Powell using too many commas. I'm so sorry Tony! I completely forgot what a horrible comma-abuser Henry James is. I must have unconsciously blocked out the TRAUMA that I suffered reading The Ambassadors last year. Let this serve as a warning for others: it has been, my experience, thus far, that, like The Ambassaors, Wings of the Dove is, "humanly speaking," "in many ways," almost, as bad. WHEN WILL THE INSANITY END?

P.S.
Yes, there is a Stringham in both Dance to the Music of Time and Wings of the Dove.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

End of the Dance Part 1

Well, this week I did it. I finished the first movement of A Dance to the Music of Time. I put the book down (well, ok, kind of threw it) and there was that woman on the front, staring up at me with her sly smile, mocking me. "Ah ah ah...you still have three more to go..!" Damn you woman! Damn you Nick Jenkins! Damn you Anthony Powell!

I'm not sure which is worse...the prospect of three more movements, or the daunting task of getting through Wings of the Dove. Ok, I'll admit it: I would rather continue to read Powell for the rest of my life than have to suffer through another Henry James. Please, sometime tell me that The Ambassadors is the lowest of the low...please someone tell me that Wings...can only be an improvement!