Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Literary Life

I don't normally comment on this type of thing, but I have seen this list of nominated books to be thrown out of the canon referred to in several places on the internet, and given that there are not merely one or two, but quite a few books on it that I think are more than usually good getting dissed here, I thought I should try, for my own purposes, to make some arguments in their defence. Taking them in order:

1. White Noise. I haven't read it. I've also seen it convincingly lambasted, and humorously so, a lot more than I have seen it convincingly praised, so this one probably isn't much of a stretch.

2. Absalom, Absalom. I am not a great lover of Faulkner mainly because I just find his characters too grotesque and repulsive for my delicate sensibility, but I still thought this book was a rather awesome piece of work, better and even more impressive than The Sound and the Fury, which is also very impressive but in which the experimental aspects are not as assured and call attention to themselves maybe more than they should. Absalom, Absalom does not, once it gets going, ever betray any sense that it might have been more properly written any other way than it is. To my sight, it appears to have everything people always say they want in a novel; it is unsentimental, violent, ambitious, full of ruthless characters with unbounded egos, its story is tied up in the fate of peoples and nations rather than reliving the author's bad memories of the eighth-grade dance. I didn't think it was particularly difficult to read either. The sentences are long, sure, but they contain images and ideas that can be followed. In terms of impossibility of reading it isn't remotely in the same class as something like Beckett's The Unnameable, at least to me.

3. One Hundred Years of Solitude. I am, perhaps surprisingly, a fan of this book. As I noted in an earlier post (like 2 years ago earlier) I did not expect I would like it, because most of the people I knew or read about who claimed to think it was great were the kind of people who tend to annoy me greatly--indeed, that is a too mild expression of my feelings, they were the kind of people on whom I secretly wished misfortunes, albeit minor ones, would befall. However, I thought it was a really ingenious and vital book, and not at all a waste of time. I should say that my wife, the sensible Sabrina, a direct descendant of the famous colonial Indian-slayer Hannah Dustin, did not care for the book too much. I recall that she found the overabundance and fecundity of nature and the stench of existence in its many manifestations to be unappealing--the mold, the frogs, the bathroom overgrown with greenery, the corpses, the heat and dust. There was also if I recall a very young child that becomes pregnant at one point by a grown man, which I assume is meant to be symbolic, but was one bit of magic realism that I think she found rather gross.

4. The Road. I haven't read this, or anything by Cormac McCarthy. He sounds like an exceedingly grim and joyless writer, which would not be disturbing in itself except that quite a few people consider him America's greatest living author. He's also another guy whose enthusiasists and their general ideas about literature do not inspire a lot of fuzzy feelings in me. But obviously I have to reserve judgement on him for now.

5. The Rainbow. If they had picked Women In Love, the sequel to The Rainbow, which I could not get into, I could have been down with them. But The Rainbow is a beautiful book, one of the best books about the sensations which nature and objects and buildings and music and other people produce in human beings that I have ever read. I actually don't read many books where I develop a strong feeling of affection for one of the female characters anymore, but I rather adored and felt an affinity with Ursula in this. Also, like the other 2 books on this list I have championed so far, this book is rather strikingly unique and quite stands out even from other literary works.

6. On the Road. Incredibly, I have never read this. I assume I would like it, since it is supposed to appeal to dopey and gullible people like me, but you never know. People who set out to tear it apart seem to have little problem picking out long sections that are really howl-worthy, which makes me inclined to think that it might also be really bad.

7. The Corrections. I haven't read this either. This guy (Franzen) comes across as more than usually whiny. In fact, he seems to have a lot of the same problems I have, except that he seems to be rich, or at least rich enough that he hasn't had to have another job in the last 20 years, during which time he's managed to crank out 2 novels--one of which, admittedly, is considered by a lot of people to be really good--and the occasional not very penetrating magazine article or essay, in which he is usually either complaining about something or trying to make an authorial statement about some issue of importance for which he clearly has no feeling (I am thinking here of an essay in which he interviewed some prisoners in which you can practically hear him crying for someone to get him out of there). Why I am even going about this? I don't know. I guess because this guy is apparently talented but he seems to lack something that is relatively important for being a writer. Like some kind of manly spirit.

8. The USA Trilogy. I read this a long time ago, in high school actually, so maybe I would think differently now, but I thought it was great, and really accomplished a lot of what it obviously was setting out to do (I also for some reason have always liked stories about 1930s Communists more than most people, without a stomach for which it would not be possible to get through this book). In truth though I find that with books my taste in high school tends to carry over pretty well; if I liked it then, even if I completely missed all the things it was supposed to be about, I generally find that I still like it now, that its tone or whatever will still appeal to me. This is not surprising, since such books would have had a big influence in forming me, and the part of me that is book-influenced is for the most part not that part with which I have major issues now.

9. Jacob's Room. Virginia Woolf. I haven't read it. Everything I have read by Virginia Woolf is superb, but apparently she left a few genuine clunkers behind.

10. A Tale of Two Cities. I haven't read this since high school either. I'm sure I thought it was entertaining since Dickens is probably my favorite author and the only book of his I have read that I remember finding disappointing is The Old Curiosity Shop. Personally there are a lot of other things I would purge from my own library first, but I won't insist strongly on its greatness.

I find it hard to say there is any major book that I would toss off of the canon, though I will say that one book I did not find to meet the incredible hype that it carries before it was Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. This was supposed to be a major turning point in American literary history, perhaps the greatest American novel since 1945, etc, etc, but I found it to be really slow-moving, with long episodic stretches that never seem to pay off with value equal to the investment of writing that went into it. 300 pages, 400 pages in, I'm thinking, this just isn't taking off, something is going to happen, something is going to happen, and then at the end (which I guess the real end is actually at the beginning) the whole thing just kind of peters out. Either there was something really big and monumental that I somehow missed totally, or the book was overrated.

Somebody left a copy of this month's National Geographic Magazine lying around a meeting room at my work so I swiped it and took it home. It had been some years since I read this magazine. I confess that I love it and find it extremely reassuring. Among the features this month were pieces on salmon supplies in Kamchatka and the question whether Venice can be saved from the various calamities, namely global warming and modern economics, that are conspiring against it. Russia having more raw geography than any other nation, the magazine goes there quite frequently, and always succeeds in coming back with pictures that make it look as if it never changes. The photos in this month's article could have been put in one of my grandparents' issues from 1974. Unlike more highbrow publications, which are fond of sending out challenges and assigning blame for various societal calamaties to people who always strike as bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to myself, the Geographic never adopts an angry tone or casts harsh judgement on anyone, even where matters about which one would suppose the contributing writers and scientists are greatly concerned. Even the misguided, hideous and inept projects which resulted in the draining of the Aral Sea by the Soviet government over a period of 40 years is duly noted as an unfortunate occurrence, with nary a hint of anger in the authorial voice, not even a shrug, just one of those inevitable incidences where bad political decisions interfere with healthy and natural processes with admittedly disastrous consequences. What can you do? The salmon article, which noted that outside of Kamchatka most of the world's Pacific salmon hatcheries were in ecologically tenuous circumstances, great care was taken to avoid suggesting that the salmon eating habits of people like your humble author (i.e, me) who formerly had no knowledge of such delicacies were to blame for this impending catastrophe, which point another magazine would have been very clear on. It was suggested in the Venice article that maybe it would be better if the city did not receive quite so many touristic visitors in its fragile state; this was only in passing, however, and certainly no individual type of person was singled out and denigrated for going there. So this depiction of the world as an essentially pleasant and fascinating place the woes of which might perhaps be my fault in some very vague sense but which the writers of the magazine would never hold against me, and which anyway scientists and travellers and foundations are continually working to correct and insure that prior mistakes are learned from and not repeated greatly appeals to me.

Children of Paradise. I saw this recently for I think the 3rd time. It is an extremely moving and emotional movie, I think, because now we know that the France, or idea of France, and idea of art as so intricately tied in with life that this movie painstakingly depicts, has just died, and this is actually kind of its eulogy. It didn't all die at once, of course. You still had people like Camus or Truffaut and musicians and teachers and theater-loving bureaucrats who knew and had absorbed something of the pre-1940 France and carried some of that with them always, but it really seems to have been almost killed off now.

The acting in French movies of the 1930-40 period--and I include this one, though released in '45, with that general era--was the best movie acting I have ever seen. Those people were incredible. They deliver their dialogue and emotion with absolute conviction. Where did it come from?

I guess the celebration of the joie de vivre of the low level artists and other members of the impoverished classes who constituted their social milieu and audience is overly sentimental and exaggerated, but it does make one desire to have that kind of vivid connection between performer and audience which is supposed to be the great advantage of live theater, or sports, or any other kind of spectator event. I imagine it must actually be somewhat electrifying to see a truly great artistic performance in a fairly intimate setting like a small theater, which this movie does an excellent job of conveying.

Scene. Song.

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