Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Smiths, Bulwer-Lytton, Raymond Carver and a Cameo by Flannery O'Connor

An old friend of mine, after expressing incredulity that I did not as yet have a kindle or other high-tech reading apparatus, had a actual 600+ page hardcover book sent to me in the mail.

The book was a new biography of the Smiths, called A Light That Never Goes Out.

We had once been fans together at an important juncture of life--the one where you clamber over the roofs of buildings in the dead of night after listening to the Smiths for several hours in order to find an open window or courtyard door by which to access the cigarette machine--and seeing it must have inspired in him a sentimental memory of those days, which affliction he expresses mainly though these kinds of gestures, for in his personal interactions, written or oral, he is generally a blunt, present-oriented, bottom line-focused man who is not always able to spare the feelings of the emotionally brittle even when he is trying to.

As such, it was the least I could do to read the book.

Big biographies are one genre of letters I have never much taken to as far as reading through entire volumes.

The details of the lives of even the greatest people seem not to be fascinating enough in themselves to command, in the hands of most biographers, my attention for more than about 300 pages of narrative.

Ancient and early modern writers seemed to have a instinctive knowledge of this.

Perhaps it was only due to a dearth of material to record, but they kept their biographies, such as they were, brief, to the point that even the lives of people like Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ are rarely commemorated by more than 100 pages of prose from any single source, though an essence of these characters is captured all the same.

I was a fan of the Smiths during the emotionally important years of my late teens and early 20s. (I still am, but the present years are not emotionally important ones).

Their best songs do hit upon a mixture of despair, sexual repression/dysfunction /failure, nostalgia and melancholy romanticism that very closely mirrors the general mental atmosphere through which some number of people, including obviously myself, tended to have experienced life in their formative years.

This does not seem to translate to 600 pages about their sessions with producers and would-be managers and tour promotors and record executives, the music and fashion scene in Manchester in the late 1970s and early 1980s, or the lives of any of the members of the group themselves, being a good read.

There have been 3 or 4 attempts at Smiths biographies now. One that was satisfying insofar as explain/relating what was pertinent or interesting about the group, would appear at this point to have an upper limit of around 75 pages.

Morrissey (who did not co-operate with the author on this book) comes across as a strange, childish man (though of a genuinely artistic/creative spirit) whose life is devoid of friendship or serious relations with other human beings of any kind, including, strikingly, Johnny Marr and his other bandmates. One suspects he is frequently witty or is capable of interesting conversation, but there is very little evidence of it recorded in this book; and if you don't have a lot of humorous or provocative Morrissey material, or there actually is not very much such material to begin with, then there almost is no point in writing such a book.

Morrissey aside, there are hints throughout the book of heavy partying, drug use, and presumably sex by the other members of the group, mainly on tour, which in the absence of anything better is curious to read about for people who have never had the opportunity to experience this lifestyle. But the author shies away from describing any of this in much detail either.

It is remarkable how much romantic/nostalgic feeling is inspired by these old British kitchen sink films, since the later lives and marriages in the milieu in which they were set are generally considered among the most doomed and miserable in human history. Obviously there were a lot of exceptionally good-looking actors in these films--Albert Finney, Richard Burton, Shirley Ann Field, Claire Bloom, Julie Christie, etc--who made the squalor and the working class clothes look cool, and evidently make the genre something people identify with strongly. I myself have said about Look Back in Anger, that I felt like the characters in it, nasty and grim though they are, were also like long lost friends I ought to have had. There is no logical reason why I would think this, other than I must have some latent desire to be angry, violent, alcoholic, rude, really good-looking and irresistible to movie-star level women. Which desire I obviously do have.

I don't usually read two 'literary' books at the same time, but I sort of am at the moment; the contrast between them is such that the moods and thought processes one enters into in reading them do not much overlap. The first, which is for my stodgy reading list, is Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton's long-forgotten 1849 novel--I don't think it has been in print since before World War II--The Caxtons: A Family History. This book was not, I am pretty sure, intentionally referenced by the source of my reading list. It was a passage from an obituary of Edgar Allan Poe that was referenced. However, the passage in question that was used to describe that author was itself a quotation from The Caxtons. Figuring that The Caxtons would be both difficult to get a copy of and a poor book, I attempted to find some reason to excuse myself from having to read it, or make an earnest effort to read it, because some obscure books do come up in this way and are impossible to find. However, there was no way I could do so within the rules established by my system. If it was reasonably available to read, I must read it; and it was thus available.

Bulwer-Lytton was a prominent novelist of his period and his book The Last Days of Pompeii was still included in family collections of great literature as late as the middle of the last century. He seems to be remembered now as a kind of patron saint of bad writing, author of the infamous opening line "It was a dark and stormy night", his name given to a contest celebrating awful sentences. The Caxtons however is not a half-bad book so far (I am about 130 pages in, out of 530). It is in the mainstream of pre-1900 English novels set in a comfortable upper middle class house in the provinces, with the familiar cast of characters: the amateur gentleman-scholar with his pleasant library, the younger brother who went to the military, the in-laws endlessly speculating and endlessly on the brink of ruin, the beauty a level or two higher up the ladder of rank and wealth than the novel's resident earnest schoolboy. There has not been a great deal of notable action to this point either, at least as far as the main characters are concerned, but the expression of thoughts and descriptions of ordinary activities such as walks or meals often strike me as being near to some truth in some essential way. I have lifted one such quotation for the "About Me" sidebar on this page. Here is another, the young male protagonist and first person narrator responding in his thoughts to being mocked by some rougher boys for always doing what his father tells him:

"Why we should be ashamed of being taunted for goodness, I never could understand; but certainly I felt humbled."

I like the way that is put. Certainly I am familiar with the feeling, though I would not have been able to use the word "goodness" so directly, because especially by the time I was an adolescent, I did not believe in goodness and badness, only strength and weakness, intelligence and stupidity, attractiveness and ugliness. So because of my crimped moral sense, I would never have had the ability to write such a sentence.

Here is another little sentence I like, because of the particular qualities contrasted:

"It is not study alone that produces a writer; it is intensity." 

Yes, this is probably generally known, but in the book, where it is used to describe a particular character, who has been built up as both a good and legitimately intelligent and educated man, and realized by his son, it has a little more bite to it than is perhaps evident here.

The copy of the book I got is from 1902, part of a series for the edification of the general reader called "The English Comedie Humaine". I have dominated this series. Out of the 14 books contained in it, The Caxtons will be the 9th I have read. It is a pretty good series, and would make for a decent years reading. Here are the titles, and my history with them:

1. Addison and Steele, Sir Roger de Coverley. From The Spectator, which was one of the happier reading experiences of my life, especially in the last 10 years. It was what I was reading when I started this blog, and was in fact the impetus of my starting it. Quite a few of my early posts reference it, though I tended to be quite hysterical and even less certain about how to write blog posts at that time than I am now.

2. Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield. I have not read this yet, but I think it comes up eventually. I have two copies of it in waiting. I enjoyed She Stoops to Conquer.

3. Mackenzie, The Man of Feeling. Read it, but wasn't impressed by it. I did a blog post on it here.

4. Richardson, Pamela. Yes. It is a truly great book, though quite a bit more padded with words than it needs to be. It is much better than Clarissa, which I did several posts on here.

5. Fielding, Joseph Andrews. Fielding is obviously a favorite author of mine, and this was a first-rate exercise of writing, though I have read it a long time ago and don't remember as much of it as I would like to.

6. Smollett, Humphry Clinker. Entertaining book, maybe a little goofy, I don't remember much of it other than that the characters travel all over 18th century England and Humphry Clinker is rather Forrest Gump-like.

7. Austen, Pride and Prejudice. (For the record, I have no heterodox opinions on Pride and Prejudice. I suspect it is securely among the top 100 novels of all time, at least, and I thought Elizabeth Bennett was a dreamboat even before I saw the 6 part 1992 TV adaptation).

8. Scott, Guy Mannering. Never read this, nor any other Scott, but I think he is coming in a big way, though I may have to live another 15 or 20 years to get to him.

9. Disraeli, Coningsby. No. I did read Vivien Grey by Disraeli, and I thought it was incoherent and generally didn't go anywhere. Based on this, I would have to rate him a much inferior novelist than Bulwer-Lytton.

10. The Caxtons.

11. C. Bronte, Jane Eyre. This was the 4th book I read for this list, back in 1995. It was good, though Wuthering Heights, which I read almost at that same time, seemed to me the greater of the two famous productions from that household.

12. Charles Reade, It is Never Too Late to Mend. I have to say I have missed this one.

13. G. Eliot, Adam Bede. I did read this. I would put it as the third of the three George Eliot books I have read behind Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, an excellent book which I think is underrated now, but Adam Bede has the same George Eliot thoroughness and seriousness of style, and is very good in that way, though the characters and story are inferior to those of the other two books.

14. Trollope, Barchester Towers. I have never read any Trollope either, but he will come eventually, and I am excited about it, because he seems to have an appeal among grumpy middle-aged male readers of our times whose desire for encountering intelligence in their reading few novelists of any era, and especially the Victorian, are capable of satisfying (Stendhal, another author I have not read, seems to be the champion of this category of seriousness, penetration, and unblinkered understanding of the way the world; Trollope is a lesser artist and smaller all around man, but perspicacious enough to be acceptable).

The other book I was reading, which I actually finished (sort of) in the time it has taken me to write this post, was What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver's celebrated (and heavily edited, but more on that below) short story collection from 1981. I had never read any Raymond Carver, or knew much about him at all, other than that his style was revered by the writing workshop/MFA crowd as very close to their ideal, which predisposed me not to like him. And indeed, through the first few stories, I persisted in this dislike, egged on by passages like these:

"I was going over to my mother's to stay a few nights. But just as I got to the top of the stairs, I looked and she was on the sofa kissing a man. It was summer. The door was open. The TV was going...My mother is sixty-five."


"Things are better now. But back in those days, when my mother was putting out, I was out of work. My kids were crazy, and my wife was crazy. She was putting out too. The guy that was getting it was an unemployed aerospace engineer she'd met at AA..."

The book (in the Library of America edition of Carver's Collected Stories; he wrote around 90 of them, no longer pieces) is 104 pages, all short paragraphs and lots of white space. You can easily read an entire story, sometimes two, in a single visit to the bathroom. It might take two weeks to read 104 pages of Golden Bowl-era Henry James, but you could read this in two hours if you wanted to. As the book went on, the style started to grow on me, and I liked the stories better, became more interested in them. They also, it seemed to me, became, or seemed to become, less gimmicky. "The Bath", "After the Denim", "The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off", I thought were good stories. "A Serious Talk", while especially unpleasant, recalls pretty accurately the poisonous vibe that hung over middle American family life in the 1970s. There are a lot of stories about drinking and affairs. Raymond Carver was no stranger to either. The Library of America books always provide an informative chronology. Here was Raymond Carver's year in 1975, when he was 37 years old:

"Out of work, unable to write, and morbidly ill, Carver lives with his wife and teenage children in Cupertino (California). His drinking and extramarital affairs continue, leading to domestic turmoil and occasional violence..."

He was not the only person living this lifestyle in 1975. Of course I am fascinated by the scenarios by which all these married, alcoholic, middle-aged men were constantly finding willing sex partners. In the stories, the male characters just sort of inevitably stumble into spontaneous sex with co-workers, women selling things door to door, wives of friends, and no one has any real desire to stop it. Further demonstrating his untameable artistic soul, Carver continually lived beyond his means, and had to declare bankruptcy twice by the age of 36. Almost every year refers to the persistence of his "affairs"--obviously numerous girls every year. I am sure I once imagined my life would be something like this. I was child in the tumultuous 70s and figured I would move in these literary or collegiate circles and alcoholism and writing and academic/literary parties and affairs would essentially be my life. It would be a strain on any primary relationships I might have, but one would have to learn to deal with it. All the real artists did, one way or the other, and being an ordinary stupid bourgeois with no connection to publishing or the cultural world at all--that was a fate too horrible to contemplate.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love was, as noted above, heavily, and in some circles famously, edited by Gordon Lish, who was a central figure in the literary world at the time, which, like all times, and in defiance of all assessments and predictions made during the era, will be remembered and studied and inspire fascination to some measurable and significant degree. Check this cat out:

Carver was not completely happy with the changes, though the power dynamic in place at the time effectively required him to submit to them; and the book did make his career, or certainly took it to a higher plane than it had been on before. However, the controversy and the alterations were dramatic enough that the Library of America felt compelled to include the original manuscripts of the stories that Carver submitted. These run over 200 pages, or twice as long as the book that came out. I'm mulling whether to go back and read those too. I'm sucked in enough to this Raymond Carver world of the Pacific Northwest and fishing and hunting and drinking and fellowships and writers colonies and adultery and darkness that I think may go ahead and do so.

A couple of months ago I also read Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor, which is probably the best book I have read in the last several years, certainly the best fiction book, and I was going to write about that too, but that could take another week, so I won't. I am trying to pin down what makes Flannery O'Connor's books work so well and what accounts for their humor, and I think the main thing is that her books depict what the world would be like if no one in life was mailing it in, but was constantly charging ahead according to their own inclinations. All of the characters in Flannery O'Connor books possess powerful self-generating energy that is inevitably at odds with everybody else's energy. But she is so consistent in this that the world she depicts is thoroughly believable. The effect is quite brilliant.

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